Tag Archives: creativity

Always Learning

I walked out of my brief doctor’s visit and headed through the lobby to my car. The hospital has a valet service, but I need to walk. After all, I’m going through post-surgery physical therapy, so I don’t use it.

The valet is a young man, maybe in his early 20s. He’s got a sketchpad and pen out, and he has a burly superhero-type man flexing next to a typical comic book female figure (the sort that would make Barbie feel unattractive).

Many visitors don’t take advantage of the valet service. Even when they do, the young man jogs out to retrieve the car, so he ends up with a lot of down time. And he’s using that to hone his skills, to build up his craft as an artist.

That’s worthy of respect. I made sure to catch him and pay him a compliment.

My daughter surprised us last night as she was getting ready for bed. She grabbed her violin and practiced for about five or ten minutes, playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” for her brother to help him go to sleep. It didn’t work, but both Mom and I were pleased with her willingness to take a few minutes to practice. She wants to learn, and she shows that dedication in moments like these.

I think of the civilian in my technical school’s chow hall almost 20 years ago. When the customers were intermittent, he always got out a drawing pad and started working on some project, taking advantage of every spare moment, every opportunity.

That’s why I have a notepad or my iPad pretty much everywhere I go. Sitting for 10 minutes with ice on my ankle after physical therapy, I can write the majority of my next A-Z post. Waiting for the doctor, I can jot down a few ideas. When someone in public says something unbelievable, I take a quick note to save it for a future character.

There’s a need for scheduled practice time, just as with any pursuit. But I think one difference between having a hobby and having a passion is that desire to fill every available moment with effort to hone the craft.

Just something I noticed as I walked out the hospital door this morning. What’s your favorite way to take advantage of opportunities throughout the day or week? Maybe it’s a suggestion I, or another reader, will find useful. Let me know in a comment.

Have a blessed Good Friday.

Elements of Critique: Originality

I recall a few conversations with friends that took place after I first started plotting out the idea for my novel. “I have this idea for a character whose nemesis is actually herself, like a split personality.”

“Oh, like in Fight Club?”

I hadn’t seen Fight Club yet.

“Because that’s what they do in Fight Club. You should probably watch or read that.”

I did. I was both entertained and frustrated. I’m a copycat before I’ve even started!

Later, I turned some of my ideas into a story for a role-playing game. When one of the big secrets came to light, one of my players burst out, “Oh! I get it! We’re playing the Serenity campaign now, aren’t we?” Then he laid out the similarities between my story and Whedon’s space-cowboy movie.

“No…” I said defensively.

“Nah, man, it’s cool. I love it. I just realized where I think you got the idea.”

So today, I’m thinking about originality and how it factors into the critique process.

After millennia of human history, there are no truly “new” stories. Look at Campbell’s work with the Monomyth as an example of how often the same elements pop up in the tales we tell. We’re all copycats, to some (significant) degree. So what’s a writer to do?

Develop new takes on old stories.

We borrow from past experiences and insights all the time. These “Elements of Critique” posts, for example, are nothing new. They’re only recounting stuff I’ve read or been told along the way. This stuff is all out there on the Internet or in any of the great books on the craft of writing. There’s nothing original about these topics I’m writing on.

Most sermons on Sunday aren’t anything new either. (The Christian in me says if you’re hearing something truly “new” from the pulpit then maybe that’s a big warning sign that you’re not hearing something true.)

But what preachers do is similar to what I look for when critiquing. They take a point that has been made hundreds of times in the past, and they find a unique way of restating it to catch the audience’s attention.

This is especially true for non-fiction writing pieces. The writer has to find a way to make telling already-known information interesting and original.

In fiction writing, on the other hand, the originality is found in the details, the setting, the ways that common concepts are juxtaposed.

When critiquing fiction, I ask “Is this a new take? Is it stated well enough that it’s unique?” Or more important, if this is the “same-old” coming of age story, is the setting original? What sets this fiction apart from the next book of the same genre?

If I see similarities to something else, it might be helpful to point out, either for comparison or for writer adjustment. If I write a fantasy with dwarves, elves, and Hobbits, someone better let me know that Tolkien already did that, he did it very well thank you, and maybe I should change my project in some significant ways.

The Fight Club reference did that for me.

There’s another aspect of originality to consider. Thanks go out to my wife for pointing this out when we were chatting about what stories catch her attention.

Originality also means it’s not predictable. The actions of the lead character should be creative. The conflicts might be similar to any number of stories, but something about them should stand out as fresh and new to the reader. The resolution or solution to the mystery has to surprise. If the reader sees it coming a mile away, that might put them off.

This is especially true and important to look for in fiction pieces.

In a non-fiction writing, if we’re dealing with common knowledge, it’s going to be difficult to make some dramatically new or surprising point. At best, the analogies and examples might be where a writer can bring out originality in their work.

One of my church’s pastors made the point in a recent sermon that so often what he needs is not new information but reminders of information he already knows.
No one really needs a fitness blog to tell them “eat less, work out more, and you’ll generally see good results.” People in church shouldn’t need a sermon to tell them “Jesus says love one another” as if that’s a new concept. College professors aren’t giving lectures about exciting new concepts; they’re presenting established facts and widely accepted thought about their particular field.

The good ones do it in a way that sticks with us, not because the point is something new, but the presentation is original. That’s what to look for and encourage in someone’s writing.

If we’re all going to be copycats on some level, let’s at least be original about it.

Elements of Critique: Constructive

It’s every creator’s not-so-hidden fear. Someone is going to see, hear, or read their work and walk away saying, “It sucked. I hated it.”

Many of us struggle to put our precious babies out there to an audience, because we fear the reception they’ll receive.

That’s part of why critiques are so important. They’re not just a corrective measure to help identify flaws and strengths in a work. They’re also about building confidence…

So long as everyone agrees to provide constructive criticism.

It’s great to hear good things about one’s efforts. For me, there’s nothing quite so delightful as seeing how others receive something creative of mine, whether a song or drawing or piece of writing. Critique groups can help point out the good stuff in our writing. “Sad scene, but well written.” “I thought that was a nice touch that communicated that character’s voice well.” “That’s a strong, descriptive verb. Good choice!”

Now I have to be clear: Constructive criticism is not warm fuzzy accolades and blowing smoke to make someone feel good. “Oh it’s so delightful, I love the way you came up with sentence structures no one has ever used before! I really felt like I knew your cardboard cutout supporting characters by the way they had no redeemable virtues! You don’t even need to build a believable conflict into your story. It’ll be published for sure!”

Even though a critique group often includes friends, we don’t gather to puff each other up and gloss over weaknesses.

Constructive means we’re building something, and many building projects start by tearing down what presently stands in a given place. So it might feel painful to see all one’s flaws exposed and highlighted, but a good critique does just that…

In order to build on the strengths that remain once the flaws are removed.

In the military, we have an unwritten rule that certainly applies elsewhere. “Don’t just tell me the problem. Come with a solution.” Constructive critiques are like that.

“I didn’t like this part” gives the writer an indication of where to look for a problem, but it doesn’t capture what the problem actually is. “The grammar here is wrong. ‘The display of colors capture my attention.’ should read ‘the display of colors captures’ because it’s the display we’re talking about.”

“I didn’t like the way this solution presented itself in the story because it felt too much like a deus ex machina – in swoops the hero who happens to have just the device needed to stop the villain and save the damsel in distress with 3 seconds left on the timer of the bomb.” The next part is the most important. “Could you try… (potential fix) instead?”

A constructive critique doesn’t just point out flaws and present fixes for each error. The goal is to make the writer stronger, more skillful. So why not present an explanation that helps them identify similar problems elsewhere in their work?

I mentioned I joined Scribophile recently. It’s an online critique community where you earn points to post your own works by giving constructive critique to others. I’ve got a chapter up for critique, and I got thoughtful feedback from one of my followers on the site.

Warning: Work in Progress
Warning: Work in Progress

Take a look at some of these examples:
“I think this disrupts the flow here, I’d try to integrate it with the above” – along with a suggested cut of a clunky phrase and a reworded sentence to include the important elements.
“I would keep with the slow soothing dialogue, rather than the command. It seems a bit out of character.”
“How does this growing power make Lyllithe feel internally? Is her head buzzing? Or does she start to feel exceptionally warm? Perhaps more and more confidence is welling up as the doubts recede?”
“Hmmm, I find this draws me away from Lyllithe too much, and right now I am fully invested in her.”
“Since you used ‘focused’ in the sentence, there’s no need to say ‘attention.'”

Problem, explanation, solution.

This gives me feedback I can build on.

If you’re stopping by for the A to Z Blog Challenge, thanks! Tomorrow I’ll be looking at Dialogue. Maybe I’ll have something constructive to say.

God's Gifts Make a Way

This is the third of five “God Leads” devotionals based on my experiences as a young Christian man in the military.

GOD MAKES A WAY FOR HIS GIFTS IN US

…According to your faith be it unto you. (Matthew 9:29, KJV)

“He’s so amazing,” I said. “I wish I could play and sing like him.”
Friends from church invited the singles over for spaghetti. While we ate, we watched a video of a musical minister leading worship from a piano. I started playing with our church worship team using one of this singer’s most popular songs.
“His lyrics minister so well,” I said. “They speak right to people’s needs.”
Our church bass player agreed with me.
The host looked us both in the eye. “I see God doing the same thing in you two.”
The bass player said what was on my mind. “Oh, no, not me. I couldn’t do that.”
The host stood up and declared, “Be it unto you according to your faith.”
I was shocked, frozen to my seat.
“Little faith, you reap little,” he continued. “Big faith, you reap big.”
The words echoed in my thoughts for an hour. I drove back to church long before the evening service and sat down at the piano.
“God, if that’s really something You’ll do, then… have Your way.”
I started playing. I chose a few chords, thought of some words, and sang. In two hours, I wrote four songs.
Since then, I started hearing music in my pastor’s sermons. I wrote over one hundred songs. We translated one into Japanese, and several became regular tunes at our church. I believed God, and He answered.
But I am also haunted by one thought, and I hope I’m wrong:
I never saw the bass player write any songs.

Application: Following God’s lead means taking chances and trusting Him for results.

Grinding Gears

This morning I forced myself out of bed to honor a commitment.

My swollen Frankenstein foot is healing. I’m attending physical therapy sessions to strengthen it. But my whole body needs exercise. My speed has to improve, and my waistline must shrink so I can pass a fitness test.

Time to move.

The first hundred feet powerwalking feel like running a motor with no oil. Like trying to get my tires out of mud or gravel, and they’re spinning with no traction.

It’s like my old 10-speed after a long winter. I’d pull it out of the garage once the snow melted, and spray WD-40 over the chain and gears. But it still took a few minutes of pedaling to shake everything loose. Grinding metal. Sudden jolts as the chain stuck and snapped loose. Frequent rattling. Then finally, it became reliable.

Even then, when I shifted speeds, the chain would sometimes slip off. I’d have to stop, put it back together, get the chain back on track, and start up again.

Effort is the oil in the engine of greatness.

The Chinese understand this. Their word for “to add oil; lubricate” ( 加油 / jia you, pronouced “jah yo”) has the figurative meaning of increasing effort, pushing harder, stepping on the gas.

With this foot, I’m never going to be a marathon runner. I’ll probably never sprint very fast. I won’t be an awesome basketball player.

But I will regain and surpass the speed I once could achieve on this foot. And I will be able to shoot hoops with my daughter again. And who knows, maybe even I’ll go back to running a fitness test instead of merely walking.

Because I will wake up on cold mornings, spray some “oil” on that ankle, suck it up, and start walking. I will get on the bike, strap my feet in, and turn up the resistance. And when it gets easy, I’ll add another level or two.

What matters isn’t where you’re at now. Where you were before doesn’t matter either. What matters is where you’re headed, and what you’re willing to do to get there.

Writing–really, any creative effort–is similar. I used to say writing was a hobby. But I’ve put in effort and study to improve my craft. I keep doing so. I call myself a writer, because writing is what I do, what I will continue to do.

In fact, I call myself author, because I’ve written numerous short stories and devotionals. I’ve put over a hundred thousand words into a manuscript and I have composed over 150 songs. Maybe soon I will self-publish. With some hope, maybe I will one day have work printed in a publication or published by a professional company.

All I know is that today I will sit down at the keyboard and turn words into sentences, phrases into paragraphs, passages into chapters. Then I’ll edit and revise until it’s the strongest work I can produce today.

And I won’t be content with that, so I’ll make myself do better tomorrow.

I’m not saying I’m great. I’m saying I’m not satisfied.

What commitment to yourself are you going to honor today?

When the Iron is Hot

No, I did NOT stay up ’til 4 AM after a short catnap in order to finish a chapter of my current project. Haha, who would do such a thing?

I’ve read numerous articles (as I’m sure any aspiring writer also has) discussing discipline and honing one’s craft. We can’t simply wait for inspiration, then write. We have to carve out time and force out effort, knowing that even if the result sucks, at least it was a result that helps us get better in the long run.

Quantity of effort ensures opportunity for quality effort.

“Strike when the iron is hot,” so goes the saying. And it’s taken to mean we should take advantage of those brief bursts of creativity and inspiration. When an idea springs to mind, run with it. If a scene plays out in your head, start writing or typing, and put that image down on record.

But that understanding of the idiom is flawed. The iron only gets hot when the smith gives careful attention to the fire, ensuring the proper temperature to work the metal. The iron gets hot because of effort, not luck. Thus, opportunities can be created, not merely stumbled upon.

I’m curious. If you write or express yourself creatively (which you probably do in some fashion if you’re reading WordPress), what is your experience with the balance of Muscle and Muse, the interplay between forcing out effort and flowing with creative energy?

I do the former to find the latter. What’s your take?