Category Archives: understanding creativity

steps to a goal – How to Think Sideways

* I know most of my Wander-Bird visitors are here because we know each other on the How To Think Sideways Forums. On the off chance that you arrived without coming across Holly Lisle’s many writing classes, may I introduce them to you by way of the story of how I took her How to Think Sideways class and am hard at work creating stories I’m proud of?

It’s a little meandering (I am a Wander-Bird, after all), and when you get to the bottom there’ll be a link to one of the big classes that won’t be offered again for some time. So, while this isn’t exactly an advertisement, it does recommend a product. If you’d like to skip this post, no worries. But if you want to join a group of writers working hard to tell good stories or at least hear how I figured out my hidden skill of taking persistent small steps (every journey, right?) and building something from the ground up (like the Great Wall?), then keep reading!

the obligatory, "I'm at the Great Wall" selfie

 

Speaking of the Great Wall, in 2008 I was living in Beijing, with my nerves a little frayed from the big city, my poor command of Mandarin (the northern accent also threw me after being used to more fluid southern accents), and life in a small apartment with kids. I really wanted a project. A writing project, to be specific. I wanted to move my desire to write out from the realm of journalling where it was slightly furtive and without purpose. I wanted to do NaNoWriMo but didn’t know how to either fit it in or to go about coming up with something worth writing a ‘novel’ about.

One of those “DUH!” moments occurred – I was homeschooling our kids, why not incorporate it into what we were already doing? This was a stroke of brilliance – both kids jumped in, happily (especially since I gave them all of November off from other subjects if they’d commit). Oldest Kid learned to type because of it (and dang, she’s fast now!) while Youngest Kid (who was in first grade) wrote hers by hand and they both ended up completely unafraid of writing and pleased to indulge their Youngest Kid, writing her storyimaginations. They’ve gone on and done NaNo several more times.

So, I had figured out how to fit writing into real life. Now I needed to know how to make what I wrote into a novel.

I searched around for instruction and even in 2008 there were a lot of online resources, so I bopped around for the first week or so trying different options but continuing writing without a solid sense of where I was going. It worked, sort of, in that I got a lot of words down. But there were serious structural flaws – from the plot itself to what was going on in scenes (or not going on, as my characters listened to crickets). It didn’t help that I wrote it out of order as well.

That ‘novel,’ Call the Rain Home, is a poster child for The Many Ways Novels Fail.

I won NaNo that year (as did Oldest and Youngest Kids), and though the story wasn’t finished and it was a mess, I was bitten.

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This fiction writing thing! It could be awesome!

I still had no clue how to write a real story (remember, I’d been mostly just writing observations and brain-dumps in journals, with some poetry now and again) and I felt the pain of novice-hood by the end of November. I loved the story I’d come up with and it made me sad that it was a broken and unfinished thing.

That’s why even as November was wrapping up, I was still shopping for a method to make a story work.

And that’s when I came across mention of Holly Lisle on the NaNo forums. To my delight (and that of my bank account) she had tons of free information on novel writing. With her help I was able to fill in critical but missing parts of my story, tie pieces together, patch It up a bit so that it could walk over the finish line feeling like a story.

When I returned to the US in 2009 I was ready to go in deeper, though.

file0001906291170After years of worrying my “lack of calling” to death I made a commitment to writing that, to be honest, I’m not sure I understood at the time. Or, if I understood it, I was probably too fearful to dig deeply into it. It wasn’t just a financial commitment, though of course paying for a course like How to Think Sideways WAS a financial commitment. More importantly, It was a commitment to learning and to labor –  motivated by knowing that my deepest self was in search of something.

Part of me wanted something desperately

– a creative life
– certainty that I hadn’t just let something keep its Dream Status without ever paying attention to what was at its heart
– to learn how to do something well
– to write

I wanted to stop praising myself in my head for having done nothing beyond fostering the idea that I “could do something if…”

That wasn’t praiseworthy, it was delusional.

Does it seem crazy that a novel writing course could help even at the deep levels of self-perception?

It’s not.

I am, absolutely, NOT Holly’s best, brightest, quick-outta-the-gate and off-the-presses, student. At least not if you look at my publication (non) record. But if you could see the total revolution that’s occurred in my head, you’d be astounded. I went from being a goal-less dreamer to someone with an enthusiasm for projects and the plans and skills for accomplishing them. I went from never admitting to anyone I was writing to being willing (and nearly ready) to put my work into the world where it can be read (and judged, let’s be honest) by anyone who comes across it. I’m braver, more focused, less prone to fearing my life will amount to nothing.

At the beginning, like a lot of people, I had a history of being my own worst enemy and from its first lesson, How to Think Sideways starts students on a path that gets the enemy out of the way.

Always of two minds: that I *could* write something good (maybe, someday, if given a chance) – and that I would never write something good and who was I fooling. I benefitted from the How to Think Sideways curriculum that helped me look self-sabotage right in the face and decide to stop indulging.

It also gave me tools to change those habits.

Here’s how Holly describes it:

In Section One: Sideways Thinking on Ideas, you’ll learn to clear out the four thinking obstacles that have stood in the way of your success in the past, you’ll learn how to discover your own “genre” that you can take with you wherever you go in the publishing world, you’ll learn how to work with your Muse, you’ll create ideas on a time limit—but without pressure—and not just figure out which ideas are worth writing, but learn how to improve your keepers, and you’ll discover how to find—or create—the market or markets in which you’ll start your career.

For me, Holly’s methods for making friends with your creativity are keystone practices that carry into the entirety of the course and beyond. From the beginning there are systematic methods as well as tips, tricks and exercises related to fiction writing and “creative life in general.”  A lot of it is transferable to short fiction and that’s what I’ve been focusing on lately. But it doesn’t stop there – and it’s not a recipe book – it’s customizable and can be tweaked to fit your own style (or genre).

Full disclosure – I’ve not written a novel with it. Yet. When I do, though, it will have been possible only because I took this course that covers everything from learning to hone in on consistently good ideas that matter to you, how to pace a story by planning scenes, how to keep your creative side happy without sacrificing the logic of your story, and working with agents and publishers as well as producing and publishing your work independently.

Here’s how it stands for me at this point. I’m still a novice and still learning to write a good story – but I’m so much closer than I was before. Now, instead of hiding my passion for writing, I start with the assumption that I can improve and I actively go about learning how to do that. Then I practice, then I test myself. In the coming months I’ll be putting my fiction to the test in a collection of short stories.

Five years ago that would have seemed impossible.

I’m one of Holly’s serial students – so some of what I’ve learned has been from her other courses and workshops, but the key that unlocked the door to freedom from the Fake Dream Perfection Someday trap was How to Think Sideways.

It’s been empowering and educational to work through the lessons, often in conjunction with other writers.

If you’re interested, I recommend you look into it and make a decision in the next two weeks. Holly’s moving her courses to a new website and the migration will make it impossible to support new sign-ups until the move is done. So, if you get in this month, you get to join with a  group of fellow writers (there are benefits to that, especially in the forums) who all start this month too.

There won’t be new openings until after the site move (at which point every existing student will be rolled into the new site, still maintaining access to all the course materials, etc.).

I started HTTS as part of a group and it was great to have classmates working on the same problems and sharing solutions and support. In the last few years Holly kept the course perma-open, something that probably has benefits, but by reverting to once or twice a year open enrollment periods, she’s giving you the best of both options: you can engage with others as you wish – or not, maybe just going through it at your own pace without active involvement with other students.

And that’s key – at your own pace – I think the thing that makes Holly’s teaching method applicable to so many people is that the emphasis is on always keeping close to your creative mind, to finding ways to keep to your own purpose (after honing in on what it is) and breaking everything down into manageable steps.

So, while I’m not currently novel-focused, I’ve still learned a lot from the course.  If this sounds like something you could benefit from, here’s where to find the course: How to Think Sideways 

Be forewarned, it’s not an inexpensive class – but to me it’s been worth every penny I spent on it. Do take your time, if it interests you, to read through the description to get an idea of just how comprehensive the class is.

It’s available to new students starting February 27th until  March 5th, 2015 and then after that enrollment will be closed for at least nine months, maybe even a year.

If you do end up joining in, let me know. I’d love to cheer you on!

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As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an affiliate of Holly’s, meaning that I make a commission if you decide to purchase through one of the links I provide. This doesn’t change the price you pay at all.  If you’re interested in her many free resources, try here: http://hollylisle.com/my-articles/writing-how-tos/

I hope any of these products help you in your creative journey.

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image credits

– yes, it’s one of those obligatory “I’m at the Great Wall” selfies

– that’s Youngest Kid, writing her story

– compass photo by irkengirdib on morguefile

World Building: Ambassador to the Soil Magicians

Sometimes I think I want to do the impossible here on Wander-Bird: try to tie in all my disparate interests and reveal the common thread that I follow intuitively.

For example, I write stories and I’m a plant geek and apprentice permaculture designer. It seems it would be hard to write a post that would tie those things together, right? Unless I wanted to set a murder mystery in a botanical garden (hmm, maybe that’s a good idea!). I think I figured out from the following video, though, that both interests are fundamentally world building. I’ll be darned, I never saw that coming!

I’ve learned in writing (with the help of the How to Think Sideways course), that the answers to story problems are usually in plain sight and just require training the unconscious mind to actually SEE what’s been observed. As I work on becoming a better writer, I’m still learning to stick to the trail of the story. When I lose it, I find I have to “feel” around the work and let what I’ve observed about it settle in my awareness, letting it percolate at the edges and then -*pop*- up comes an idea for a solution.

The same kind of method is a fundamental part of permaculture design – long observation forms the basis of eventual understanding of the patterns nature uses to generate life in all sorts of situations. It ought to be self-apparent that learning from and emulating nature will always be a good strategy, but since we’re a kind of slow-to-learn-species, I’m glad there are “ambassadors” reaching out with the things they’ve learned (whether about writing or designing communities). I have a lot of respect for those who are willing to stand at the edges of disciplines or established ways of doing and understanding things and try something new. For example, Paul Stamets is a mycologist who, through deep respect for fungal life forms, has explored ways to partner with them to repair damaged land by promoting healthy soil biology.

That’s already pretty fabulous!

But he takes it to another level in his recent research. I don’t think he’s projecting a fantasy world, but it does rely on imagination. Without an observation-fueled imagination, he wouldn’t have figured out a possible way to keep bees healthy in this era of catastrophic collapse.

Check out the video, it’s pretty cool stuff – and he actually does refer to the fungi as soil magicians! :)

*all my links to Holly Lisle's classes and workshops are affiliate links meaning that I make a commission on purchases made through my links at no additional cost to you.

The Trap of my Imagination, Where I am Safely Perfect

278_Spirialling_Steps_of_the_Amedee_LighthouseThis morning, as the end of a year approaches, I woke into an insight as framed in the last few days of reflection and consideration. The insight pointed out that part of me thinks it’s safer to leave GOTS and all my other bits-and-bobs of writing unfinished. I’m pretty aware of this pattern of stopping again and again though I’ve not yet  overcome it.

Fishing around for my motivation to finish GOTS I saw that there is a contradictory inner force pulling the strings, ruling through my own abstention from taking power, my own abdication.

GOTS has this strange quality of never, never ending, while simultaneously taking 60,000 words (so far) to go absolutely nowhere. It’s a non-story, in fact. But if I keep it unfinished, in a permanent state of “draft,” I never have to deal with that. A perpetually hopeful, childish, “I don’t want to grow up and finish something attitude”  keeps everything I work on in a state of incompletion.

dollcar

Short stories are always just drafts, poems are drafts, CTRH (my first “novel-thing”) is a broken mess of a draft that is, not surprisingly, without an ending. GOTS is so flawed that I can’t see my way to complete it because its “completed” state will prove that my writing is a waste of time.

I “refuse” to put action in the story (observing “it just keeps slipping away”), I never make something happen, and my characters don’t act decisively and with commitment (yes, my characters appear to be reflections of my own worst traits, don’t worry, I won’t force you to read it), because doing so would send them on their way toward being just as crappy in their final form. Short stories don’t get shown to anyone, they sit in rough or final drafts or are idealistically compiled into  fake “anthologies” which go nowhere though their mother has high ideals. Everything inhabits a fluid and open spot on my to-do list. Eternally in progress, unjudgeable, safely tucked away.

If that’s the case — and it is the case — now that I’ve identified the problem, what needs to be done to fix it? Two ideas popped up in the course of assessing this situation.

1. I need to submit short pieces to real markets and not just self-pub them (to my audience of 4 blog-readers). Self-pub is in the works for some things, but self-sabotage requires external assistance. If I rely on myself for everything, the process breaks down at some point – something stalls when that outdated mindset wants to keep everything “safely” In Progress.

2. I need to finish a crappy draft of GOTS. It needs to crawl to the finish line. I’ve come to judge it, to think poorly of it, to disdain it because it’s such a pale, broken simulation of what it was supposed to be and keeping it un-done allows my mind to hold onto what “it could have been” and what it  “could be,” the ideal I’m capable of creating in a perfect world where I’m a perfect me.

This means that, for my own peace of mind, to overcome this pattern of cowardice (always backing away, always turning tail with a cheery smile on my face as I look to New Ideas that don’t put up a fight), I have to start calling some things DONE. Play is all well and good and I love that part of creative work – that it engages playfulness – but at this late date, I also need to grow up a little and claim my work as *Something* and not just let it dissolve so I can avoid disappointment through avoiding completion. Not having done this and  always focusing on process, I’ve also avoided the kind of joy that is only available by wrapping something up and feeling the syncretic reality of process joined with final product.

brokenprototypes

It’s time to stop fooling myself with my fantasy world in which I pretend all is well in the workshop, that all the kinks are being worked out eternally, eternally in service of how good my ideal is and, “shhh, don’t look at the broken, misshapen, flat and unworkable prototypes on the factory floor. They’re not mine, I don’t know how they got there.”

If I want to inhabit my creativity, if I want to actually do real work and not live in my head (where it is very, very safe and very, very stifling) then I’m going to have to finish something and let it exist as itself in the world.

That’s what 2014 is going to be about.

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image credits: Amédée Lighthouse stairs, photo by Eustaquio Santimano, originally on flickr, here, but it wouldn’t load for me. It was also here. Creative Commons license.

the armless driver (WHO is driving this ship?) is also on flickr from donpezzano/Don Urban. Creative Commons license.

the little broken dolls are from the blog Ullabenulla. The blogger, Ulla Norup Millbrath uses such things for her own artwork (lesson: use it all, even the broken pieces!!). Not cc licensed, but hopefully use with attribution is ok.

I, where I turned, felt the enchantment

“The experience of centering was one I particularly sought because I thought of myself as dispersed, interested in too many things. I envied people who were “single-minded,” who had one powerful talent and who knew when they got up in the morning what it was they had to do. Whereas I, where I turned, felt the enchantment: to the window for the sweetness of the air; to the door for the passing figures; to the teapot, the typewriter, the knitting needles, the pets, the pottery, the newspaper, the telephone. Wherever I looked, I could have lived.

 It took me half my life to come to believe I was OK even if I did love experience in a loose and undiscriminating way and did not know for sure the difference between good and bad. My struggles to accept my nature were the struggles of centering. I found myself at odds with the propaganda of our times. One is supposed to be either an artist or a homemaker, by one popular superstition. Either a teacher or a poet, by a theory which says that poetry must not sermonize. Either a craftsman or an intellectual, by a snobbism — which claims either the hand or head as the seat of true power. One is supposed to concentrate and not to spread oneself thin, as the jargon goes. And this is a jargon spoken by a cultural leadership from which it takes time to win one’s freedom, if one is not lucky enough to have been born free. Finally, I hit upon an image: a seed-sower. Not to worry about which seeds sprout. But to give them as my gift in good faith.

      – M.C. Richards in Centering: In Pottery, Poetry and the Person

 

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related, in case you haven’t seen it, to this post.

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Oh, the Mad, Magical Mind!

There is so much back story to the things I eventually want to post here that I freeze up and don’t get started. As in my regular creative life, hurdles appear large, and without adequate momentum I don’t get over them. The only thing to do, perhaps, is ignore the necessity of extensive back story and just write what needs to be written.*

So, the brief version: Over the years I’ve come to find that creative activity is essential to my existence. That knowledge, combined with severe self-judgment about the quality and quantity of creative output has led me to be keenly interested in understanding just what fuels creativity, what it means psychologically, spiritually, emotionally, practically. It’s possible that this is a fancy and somewhat academic way of shunning actual artistic endeavors (intellectual procrastination), but determining that is also part of the quest to understand and ideally, enhance this journey.

Given what has already been established in my experience – the connection between creative states and mental states, despair over inability to function creatively coupled with existential depression, an awareness that creative “inspiration”** certainly may be understood as characterized by firing neurons (and thus be biologically based), and that it might be useful to consider an inspiration source outside the self – I am aware of close ties creativity and mental illness have had throughout history.

I’m aware too, that mental illness is, in our society, often conflated with proclivities toward altered states of consciousness. Are they the same and mutually inclusive? By suggesting so (and thus pathologizing the whole caboodle), do we deny validity to the often physical, social, and cultural benefits of ASCs? A tightrope awaits the one who journeys this way.

Altered states of consciousness are praised in certain circles – shamans, psychonauts, visionaries and religious practicants (and hippies and hipsters, too) search them out. Heck, we all do (see Consumption of Alcohol, Children Spinning in Circles and other commonplace activities that stretch awareness and perception). Simultaneously we have difficulty dealing with extreme ends of the spectrum as relates to mental phenomena such that there are severe social stigmas associated with altered mentality.

On Friday, one of my favorite author-artists, Terri Windling, posted an invitation to join her in considering the link between hearing voices and hearing muses and thinking back through the path I’ve taken to explore the nature of personal and general creativity, I offer a hat-tip to a number of places I’ve come across other writers’ and artists’ take on this topic.

Douglas Eby’s Talent Development Resources has numerous articles in the category Mental Health exploring the connections and misconceptions between facing one’s demons (and using them creatively) and finding one’s daemon (as the Greeks conceived of one’s link to cosmic creativity through personification). These two articles may be of interest as well as the writings of those who challenge the stereotype of tortured, afflicted artist as the only legitimate embodiment of creativity.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk was synchronous with several sources of the idea that it might be useful to make friends with one’s muse (or non-linear, non-rational mind, however you want to call it) which I found when I needed them. And I am grateful for James Hillman’s words on the deep meaning of following one’s imagination-as-real: “Personifying not only aids discrimination, it also offers another avenue of loving, of imagining things in a personal form so that we can find access to them with our hearts.” Matt Cardin has considered the topic skillfully and in great depth on his focused blog Demon Muse and in his collection of writings on muse- or daemon-based-creativity, Course in Demonic Creativity. Don’t let the title scare you off, it’s well worth the read.

In his other blog, The Teeming Brain, (with enough links to provide interesting reading for months and insight on those links to keep you returning for more) Cardin questions a definition of reality that excludes the “unproveable” or that denies the reality of imagination and dream (see this post on the weird territory of alien abductions).

I think we’re in an era of uncertain self-identity, coming out of the stark materialism that resulted after having been burned by the Middle Ages. No pun intended, I think the witch burnings left serious scars, as did the Enlightenment – basically we’re all not right in the head, but at least we are trying to understand the implications of consciousness in a world of material manifestations. There is fuzzy space, room for interpretation and a lot of uncertainty about how this all gets tossed together and who we are in the process.

Regarding the reality/unreality dichotomy, another TEDtalk is worthwhile. USC professor Elyn Saks talks about her experience with schizophrenia, characterized by psychosis (“being out of touch with reality”) because of delusions (”fixed and false beliefs that are not responsive to evidence”) and hallucinations (”false sensory experiences”).

Given some flexibility with what experiences you jam into those categories, does the creative who enters imaginal realms (not reality)and converses with entities whose existence cannot be proven (characters of stories) differ qualitatively from the schizophrenic or the religious adherent caught up in ecstatic fervor and speaking in tongues or seeing angels?

What is the dividing line between those who mine their dreams, to whom the dreamed image begs to be brought to life and those who suffer a “nightmare while awake?” While in a psychotic episode Saks engaged in “loose association” in many ways reminiscent of my experience with poetry and free-associative writing, some of which has resulted in a sense of my being carried by something not myself, as a conduit of an energy seeking expression through language.

Saks goes on to say that she resisted medication for some time out of the assumption that “the less medicine, the less defective” she was. Interestingly, Sinead O’Conner found that with the help of medication to treat her manic-depressive (bipolar) disorder, her creativity and enjoyment of music and life returned, suggesting that artists needn’t suffer to reach their potential – terrible suffering doesn’t have to be a starting point, even if Rilke famously said, ”If my devils leave me, my angels will too.”

Being a relatively well-trained rationalist I sometimes feel defensively insecure about my clear-headed decisions to engage in magical thinking.

Yes, I wished on a lot of dandelions in hopes that we would move to Germany with Dan’s work. Did I really think the dandelions would make it happen? No. But it was a kind of Pascal’s wager and I seeded more lawns in California than I care to admit and quietly thanked the gorgeous blooms here in Germany this spring.

Yes, I search for ways to write from other consciousness perspectives besides the purely logical, evidence-seeking one.  I converse with my Muse-mind, walk in the woods hoping to find the place where I can understand animal-talk. I want to believe there is more than just a sack of bones and a brain with logical thoughts calling itself Wendy. I want deep psyche-spirit connection with a reality greater than I can rationally understand. I want to write from that connection – that’s what makes the phases of uncertainty and creative fumbling that looks a lot like listening to voices in my head worthwhile.

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*I will ignore the debate over whether or not any blog post NEEDS to be written given the information sea that swamps everyone.
** is this an overused word in these times, when we understand it etymologically, but don’t actually believe that something is doing the breathing-in?