mystery

I figured I’d continue on the Star Wars trend (ha, I almost wrote trek) from last week.

Most people over the age of 7 agree the Star Wars prequels (episodes 1-3) are not great. I suppose they have some redeemable qualities (if you look really hard) but I found most of the content to be either forgettable or unforgettably bad. Sorry, George. 

One of those memorably bad decisions has to do with the introduction of “midi-chlorians.” Apparently, they’re microscopic life forms that facilitate The Force, or something like that. Anyways, midi-chlorians brought The Force down quite a few notches on the coolness scale. 

But why are they so bad? Don’t we love getting a scientific explanation for things we don’t understand? Sometimes, yes. But not always. Here’s the big problem: they explain away the mystery.

Without mystery, creativity dies a slow, boring death.

More recently, Lucas announced his original plans for the later trilogy in the main storyline (ep7-9)

“[The next three Star Wars films] were going to get into a microbiotic world. But there’s this world of creatures that operate differently than we do. I call them the Whills. And the Whills are the ones who actually control the universe. They feed off the Force… If I’d held onto the company I could have done it, and then it would have been done. Of course, a lot of the fans would have hated it, just like they did Phantom Menace and everything, but at least the whole story from beginning to end would be told.”  

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a terrible idea to me, for the very same reason. It takes everything people love about Star Wars, throws it out the window and instead dives into a detailed explanation of how The Force works. It mercilessly slaughters the mystery.

Without mystery, creativity becomes quite dull. Rather than surprising and exciting, it morphs into a prison of predictable pattern. It ceases to be new and therefore ceases to be creative.

Magic tricks are fascinating, but once the trick is revealed, that sense of awe and wonder is lost—it becomes a rational, ordinary thing.

As a writing teacher often reminded the class: RUE, resist the urge to explain. A story is much more interesting when it unfolds slowly. Readers enjoy the excitement of each reveal that comes with a new plot point, rather than being given all the juicy secrets in chapter one.

There is something to be said about not knowing. True, not knowing can drive us crazy sometimes. In our information overloaded world, we want to know everything. But there are times when knowing can be even worse than not knowing. How many times have you discovered something you were curious about only to look back and realize you would have been better off remaining in the dark?

Take the TV series, Lost, for example. When the writers tried to explain all that weird stuff happening on the island (smoke monsters and polar bears anyone?) during the last season, and especially the last episode, it felt like they were taking all the magic they had created and dumping it down the toilet.

Sure, it’s good to be well-informed and prepared rather than confused and befuddled, but there are times when a state of confusion can lead to greater innovations. Confusion forces you to question what you know, to look for a solution that isn’t obvious.

So, I say, don’t be afraid of the mysterious and strange, they might open a new window and allow a light of inspiration to shine on that creative mind of yours—one which is completely (and blessedly) devoid of midi-chlorians.

the planets

If you’ve listened to Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets, you probably thought the same thing I did: it sounds a lot like Star Wars. And I mean a whole lot. The similarities are especially noticeable in the first movement, Mars, which is very similar to The Imperial March.

They’re so similar, in fact, at times it sounds like one was ripped straight from the other. Since The Planets came first (1916), does that make the original Star Wars composer, John Williams, a big copy cat?

In Holst’s work, each movement of the suite is based on the astrological nature of a planet in our Solar System. You might say it’s a fairly high-concept album. In more modern times, musical artists like Ryan O'Neal and Sufjan Stevens have done similar projects with planet-based songs. I expect during the time, Holst’s theme was quite unique.

Inspiration is a strange thing. Legally, there are rules concerning how similar one's work is allowed to be to another without it being considered stealing. I remember someone telling me about 10% is allowable. Even then, it gets muddy. I’m thinking Under Pressure vs. Ice, Ice Baby sorts of things. And I hope we can all agree that Vanilla Ice ain’t got nothin’ on David Bowie.

Beyond the a question of what is legal, I wonder what is right? I don’t think Williams denies  the influence The Planets had on his score for Star Wars, but does that still make it ok? That’s a tough one. 

The soundtrack for Star Wars is an excellent piece of work on its own (in my opinion), and it’s impossible to say what shape it would have taken without Holst’s influence. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but when massive success and recognition comes from adopting portions of another person’s work into your own, a certain amount of credit (and even financial compensation) is due to the originator. 

A worker is worthy of their wages—that’s no less true when it’s a creative work.

It’s hard to draw a line, but I think every artist deserves to receive recognition and value when their own work leads to the advancement of another’s.

Apparently, there was also a lawsuit based on Hans Zimmer’s score for Gladiator, which duplicated some aspects of The Planets. So Williams wasn’t the only one influenced. And so it goes with great works of art—other people notice and they can’t help but want to do something similar. That’s not a bad thing.

I often think about this when I see people on YouTube getting paid to play someone else’s game. I’m not against it, and have even enjoyed watching a few playthroughs myself, but I also wonder whether or not it benefits the game company. People might not buy a game they can watch someone play, but then again the game is getting free publicity.

When it comes to inspired work, one important question to ask is who has the most to gain and who has the most to lose?

Where do you think the line should be drawn between inspiration and stealing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Con-unity

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This summer, I attended a Christian writers conference called Realm Makers. It wasn’t the first Christian conference I’d been to, but it was my first writers con.

In short, it turned out even better than I had expected (not that I had a lot of expectations going in, good or bad). I met many a fine folk and gleaned quite a bit from the seminars and panels I attended. I boarded the plane home feeling rejuvenated and restored. Plus, I have a few new books and a bunch of new friends now.

There is something to be said about being around creative people with similar goals, mindsets, and experiences to your own. The sense of belonging I felt there was wonderful. It was a little like being home but with 300 people I’d never met before.

Generally, while out in public I have my guard up. Now, I’m a rather friendly guy, but I operate with a sense that most people I’ll meet don’t truly understand or resonate with where I’m coming from. Meeting someone I have a strong affinity with doesn’t happen often, even at other conferences and conventions I’ve gone to.

This event was an exception. Not a single person I talked to felt like a stranger, despite how different our personalities, backgrounds, and even appearance might have been. There was a connection, a feeling that, on some level, this person gets me, they’ve dealt with (and maybe still are dealing with) some of the same struggles I have.

Creatives, if you can find a place and people such as that—people who you can truly identify with—I highly recommend you make a strong effort to attend. Yes, such things can be expensive (besides just the registration, there’s travel, accommodations, and a time commitment). Despite my severe lack of sleep during the con, I felt refreshed by the end.

It’s healthy to live and work around people who have a different outlook and walk of life than your own, rather than living in an echo chamber of people who all sound the same. But it sure helps to take the occasional opportunity to refocus your creative energy as you glide along, squawking merrily with some birds of a feather at your side. 

Oh, did I mention we ended the whole shebang with an epic Nerf gun war? Totes awesome. And the sweet pair of mugs I won in a raffle didn’t hurt neither!

a place for everything

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Everything has its proper place. 

This statement holds more weight for some people than others. Is there really a right place for everything? Furthermore, is there a proper place for creativity?

As for the first question, I believe it’s a personal matter.

For many people, organization is a big deal. Being organized is especially helpful when you want to be able to find something again quickly. Besides that, it's aesthetically pleasing. A disorganized room can be a real eyesore!

After helping my family move, I was reminded again how important it is to label boxes before loading them up into the moving truck—otherwise, you’re bound to misplace something you need on the other side and spend a good long while searching for it. And you'd better mark that dish wear fragile with a few underlines if you don't want it getting smashed up.

Organization itself is a booming industry. Whether you’re organizing clothes, emails, work tasks, or pictures, someone is always coming up with a new and improved system of sorting all your stuff and making it easier to find in the future. For me, the simpler the method the better. After all, even our organization methods can get cluttered.

Organizing your time by scheduling and time blocking is a great way to make sure you get the most out of your day and finish things of highest importance first. It's something I'm very slowly getting better at. As I've found, it takes time just to plan out your time. But it's worth it in the long run. Living moment by moment with no laid-out plans is a bit like living paycheck to paycheck—you just hope you have enough to do the things you need to.

Without organization, life can begin to feel chaotic, out of control, and unwieldy. Some people don’t mind that so much. I heard an argument in favor of just leaving piles of papers wherever you place them on your desk because the last one you used—and thus the one you will most likely need to use in the future—will always be on top. While I can appreciate that on some level, I’m sure glad we have a filing cabinet in our office, otherwise tax filing would be a nightmare (instead of just a couple of lame nights). 

Organizing is often a left-brain activity—it’s logical and methodical. This could be why creatives (who are often stronger with right-brain activities) are stereotyped as working in cluttered environments. How often have we seen depictions of the painter’s studio or inventor’s shop where everything appears strewn about haphazardly? Even then, there is often a method to the madness.

Fear not—organization can certainly be handled with a creative approach. For instance, I like it when items are sorted visually, such as clothes grouped by color or board games lined up by size. In the social media landscape, Pinterest has proven to be a popular way to save and share images and links, often as a source of inspiration and ideas. I can't tell you how many times I've seen furniture with a nifty new way of storing your stuff (like wavy bookshelves or hanging shoe bins).

The next time you find yourself in need of sorting your sock drawer or archiving old project, why not look for a fun new way of doing it? Besides just being more interesting, creative organization can help with recollection as our minds are more apt to remember something done in a unique manner.

Now, how about a proper time and place for creativity itself? Why, it’s everywhere and all the time, of course!

I leave you with a quote often attributed to Einstein, though I'm not entirely sure he actually said it:

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?

the power of now

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Life is a strange thing to me. The more I think about it, the stranger it seems. 

Just how much control do we have over our own lives? In the case of external events and circumstances, it often feels like very little. But, in the case of our internal attitudes and the actions we take from them, we have much more.

I’ve heard one preacher describe life as a series of choice, decisions, and consequences. In some aspects I believe that’s true.

As far as time goes, and the passing thereof, we have no control. Like it or not, time just keeps on ticking into the future. All we have is right now. This moment. No, I mean this one. Even so, our now is shaped by our past and what we do now determines our future.

So often I’m tempted to dwell too long on the past or worry to much about the unknowns of the future. Either obsession can become a hamper to creative thought because both can be the result of dwelling in fear.

Yoda claims that fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering. For Anakin Skywalker this was true. It also led to three mediocre (at best) prequels. Sorry George, but it’s true.

As far as dwelling on the past and worrying about the future, fear leads to indecision, which leads to inaction, which leads to … well … not creativity. Maybe you have a better word for it.

In Clint Eastwood’s movie, Gran Torino, Walt is a retired vet who is, in many ways, stuck. He’s old, in bad health, has lost his wife, and despises his multi-ethnic neighbors. He’s a man haunted by his past wrongs who has a grim outlook on the future. Now, I wouldn’t call him scared (he’s a ballsy guy, to be sure), but there is an internal fear that keeps him disengaged—at arms length from his neighbors and even his own family.

But things change (a necessity for any story) and Walt is drawn out of his cocoon of beer, home repairs and car maintenance and into caring relationships with his Hmong next-door neighbors. He finds creative ways to protect and care for them, especially one boy in particular. Eventually, Walt takes an extremely heroic (dare I say, creative) action to put a stop to a gang that has been attacking the family.

In the end, there is a sense of redemption for Walt and hope for the family he helped. His decision to step into the moment and make some real changes lead to a positive outcome. That’s not to say everything is peachy, but it’s a much better story than what would have happened if Walt had stayed holed up in his house until he died of old age.

At some point, we’ve got to let the past be the past, let the future worry about itself, and focus on what we can do right now and the impact we have on the people who are around us today. I hope you, unlike Walt, don’t wait until you’re a crotchety old fogey full of regrets. But, even if you are one, it’s not too late to start living in the now, right now.

hard to find

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Much like good help, some well-known people are hard to find. Others—Bob Goff for example—have made themselves easy to reach (he put his cell phone number in the back of his book, for laughing out loud).

I’ve often considered which lifestyle is more appealing. 

There is something idyllic about living in a remote cabin far from society, only submitting your work through a complex chain of untraceable contacts, including a speckled northeastern carrier pigeon. But I imagine such a life could get lonely. And I hear carrier pigeons make foul company. 

Then again, being surrounded by a posse of watchful guards and raving fans all the time sounds overwhelming. I’ve heard, and believe, that some of the most famous people in the world are also the most lonely. 

After all, just because your famous doesn’t mean you have many close friends. Actually, I think fame often becomes a barrier to true friendship. Are they really your friends or do they just want to get something out of you? 

So, which is better for a creative? I think there is room for a bit of both.

It’s important to make time for the people who appreciate the creative work you make, even if you’ll never meet them in person. This could be a short email, a phonemail, or even a reply on social media. It shows people that you care that they care. 

Personally, I’ve reached out to a few successful creatives (artists and authors) and when I get a response, man, it really made my day.

But, even more important, there is a necessary time to get away from the crowd, to turn off all those notifications. Your work may belong to your fans, but you do not.  Besides that, your family should get special attention from you that no one else does.

It’s also important to maintain a few close friendships. This could, and even should be people who have no specific interest in your own creative pursuits. Such people help round you out and can be a support for you when other areas in life are a struggle.

No matter how well known you are or how successful your work is, we all need to be part of a community. We also need a place where we can find peace, quiet, and safety—an escape from masses. 

As Dorothy realized, there really is no place like home, even if that home happens to be in a bird sanctuary high in the Rocky Mountains.

Something new, just for you

If you haven't noticed, there's a fancy new section on the home page.

After a considerable amount of work (more than I had imagined at the outset), I've finally got my email course up and running, along with a bunch of splendid giveaways that I think you're gonna dig.

Find out more

So, if you aren't on my email list yet, now is the perfect time to join (and don't worry, you can unsubscribe any time if you find out it's just not your thang).

Planecrafters

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Every now and then someone I know makes something awesome. In this case, it’s a board game (well, technically a card game) by my buddy Michael Patience.

And the name of the game is

Planecrafters

It’s up on Kickstarter right now and if you’re into card or board games I recommend you get it.

In Planecrafters, you build a task force of specialized workers in order assemble airplanes out of any spare parts available. Based on the workers you hire and the planes you build, you get shiny coins.

I have played the game in a nearly finished state and my wife and I loved it. It has all things I enjoy in a casual game: easy to learn, many roads to victory, player interaction, great art, unique theme, and, most of all, fun!

So fire up your engines, propel yourself over to Kickstarter and nab a copy.*

*I was not in any way paid or even asked to promote this game, I honestly enjoyed it and hope it sells well (I’ve already backed it myself).

fresh and new

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Have I talked yet about how much I love bread? It’s highly likely. 

Point in fact, I could eat a sandwich for lunch every day for the rest of my life (I do most days) and not have a problem with it. I’d prefer not to eat the exact same style of sandwich every day, but, hey, beggars can’t be choosers. 

I believe one of the best smells in the world is homemade bread fresh from the bread maker or oven. Mmmm boy!

I could cut anything else out of my diet if I had to (okay, not water, jeez), but I don’t think my soul would survive without bread. Now you know my secret weakness … with grain power comes grain responsibility.

Creativity is a lot like bread. Yeast, the active ingredient in bread, is alive. Likewise, you are the active ingredient in your creativity, and you are (I hope) very much alive. Unlike the yeast, you do not die in the process of creation (let’s hope)!

Most folks (myself included) like their bread hot and fresh. It’s the same with creativity. Old and stale doesn’t spell creative—mix those letters up however you want, I guarantee you can’t make it happen.

Not long ago, I took a few writing classes from an author and children’s book illustrator (it’s just one person in case you were confused). He had a lot of advice, but this was the one thing he repeated the most:

You have to say the same old thing in a fresh new way.

Whether you’re a writer or some other form of creative, it’s good advice. You’ve probably heard that there is “nothing new under the sun,” or something to that effect. Solomon may have written it first, but I bet even he didn’t come up with the idea.

All that has been done and seen and told has happened before, in some manner. Yes, apparently even the cavemen were distracted by texts during family dinner time. Someone pass the mammoth spare ribs!

Point is, the fact something has been done before shouldn’t dissuade you from engaging it creatively. For everything that has been done, there is a new way you can do it, a manner unique only to you. Even the commonplace and ordinary can be turned into something spectacular. Like the guy who fashioned sculptures out of Starbucks cups. Opportunities to create something fresh and new are all around you.

It’s funny, there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, but new words are being created all the time, and not necessarily long ones either. Walsorf, for example. I just made that one up, see? I’ll let you figure out what it means.

Even if you’re engaging in a very old art form—baking for example—there are always new ways to do it. There are new techniques, new ingredients, and new tools. All sourdoughs were not created equal. Trust me on that one.

So whether you’re scrapbooking or scrap baking (I think I made that up, but it sounds cool), serve it up with a fresh new take on an old familiar flavor.

Good Book, Good Animation

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As you probably know already, I’m a Christ follower. It’s not a big secret or anything, but I also try not to be too forward about it either. It’s who I am, it’s an important part of my life, and if you get to know me, you’ll find out about it one way or another.

Since I’m a Christ follower, reading the Bible is something I do pretty regularly. Believe it or not, I actually love reading it. It’s not a chore for me (though it’s not always easy). I could go on about why I think the “Good Book” is so great, but hey, if you really want to know, just ask me some time.

But this post is not about Bible reading, it’s about Bible watching.

Say what?

If you like animation and have even the remotest interest in what the Bible is about, you definitely need to check out...

The Bible Project

This may sound surprising (it does to me), but I think I’ve learned more about the central themes of the Bible from The Bible Project than I have from listening to sermons or even my own reading time.

They do a great job of breaking things down into simple ideas and explaining a lot of stuff that is typically misunderstood about the collection of ancient texts known as the Bible. And that’s pretty nice because the Bible can be super confusing and daunting. Have you seen the size of that thing? It's huge!

Besides, let’s be honest here, no one has ever accused me of being too smart or too Biblical. Not once. But I’ll wager even if you have suffered such fiery accusations, you’ll learn a thing or two watching The Bible Project. Plus, the animations are top notch (this, from a professional animator).