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.

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.

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.

balance revisited

As I’ve mentioned in the previous post, I’m reading The ONE Thing. In the book, they talk about “lies,” people often believe.

I’ll admit, most of them I can nod along with and say, “sure, sure,” like Paul Newman’s character from The Hudsucker Proxy (great movie if you haven’t seen it). But some of the supposed “lies” are actually a bit harder for me to swallow. Two in particular: a disciplined life and a balanced life. The book’s authors claim both are a lie.

I consider myself to be a fairly disciplined person and I’m all about that balance stuff.

It turns out the disciplined “lie” isn’t so striking. The argument is that instead of trying to be disciplined in all aspects of life (and failing), just be disciplined in one thing. It makes sense and they use Michael Phelps as an example, so who can argue with that, right?

Balance though, that’s something I’ve really got to lean into (pun alert).

We live in a world full of extremes and I’ve always felt that balance is a healthier approach. There’s a balanced diet, a balanced checkbook, even balance bikes (you know, for kids).

The book makes the argument that while balance sounds great, no one actually achieves it—it’s an impossible ideal. Okay, yeah, maybe there’s some truth to that. 

In my mind, when I finally reach perfect balance I’m sitting alone atop a grassy knoll with legs crossed in some Zen-like trance and, somehow, little stones are hovering around me. That’s the moment right before I single-handedly take on an army of Storm Troopers. Hey, it’s my dream, I can do what I want.

Really, that’s never gonna happen. There are dishes to feed, mouths to change, and diapers to load. Oh, and that whole business about making money in order to keep the lights on. Plus the only Storm Troopers I know are just folks in costume.

Life is too full of important and necessary things to keep them all in balance. I get that. But I still think a mindset of balance is beneficial.

It’s better to allow yourself a little bit of sugar once a day (diabetics not included) than to go a few days without and then totally gorge yourself on it. Same with exercise. A little bit of exercise (like a short jog) every other day is way healthier than none at all followed by a day of pushing your body to the edge of cardiac arrest.

The book’s argument against balance is that only the people who live on the extremes are successful. That may be true in some sense, but I think it’s debatable as a principle for everyone. I know plenty of people who have lived their life on the extremes and done quite poorly for themselves.

The ONE Thing offers “counter balance” as the alternative to a balance life, where you focus on one thing while everything else gets neglected and then you return to the other things and focus on re-balancing. But even they can’t help but give the strong warning not to neglect family life too often for work. So even the balance haters have to admit there’s a need to hold work and family in some kind of equilibrium.

In the end, I think we might be talking about two sides of the same coin here. 

To me, balance is not holding everything equally, giving it all the same amount of time and attention. Clearly that’s not possible. Balance is finding the right amount of time to give every task, thought, emotion, goal, habit etc. If you’re angry all the time, or sad all the time, or even happy all the time, that’s not good. Life has rhythms and flows. For everything there is a season (you know the rest).

It’s kinda like a hula-hoop. You might look pretty silly swinging your hips that way and at the start you just keep dropping it again and again. But, the more you work at it, the more you figure out just the right way to keep that thing going, around and around and around.

Wait, were we talking about balance or centripetal force? Ah well, save it for another post I guess.

By the way, here's my previous post on balance, if you're leaning that way.

a creative divided

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I’ve been reading The ONE Thing by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan. It’s got a lot of good information, much of which I’ve read elsewhere.

Let’s face it, once you start reading those sorts of productivity and success books, you get a lot of the same advice from different people. That probably means it’s good advice.

One practice it warns against (one I know I’m guilty of) is multitasking. The book points out that multitasking really just means dividing attention unequally between two things and, more often than not, doing them both poorly. 

It presents evidence that we can really only pay attention to one thing and the more we try to accomplish at once, the less productive (and more exhausted) we become.

Unlike computers, our minds are not great at quickly switching between multiple tasks.

Sure, we can walk and talk, but that’s because walking typically requires little brain power. Try walking on a tightrope and all of a sudden your jabbering goes away. This is what makes phones and driving a potentially dangerous combination (a little PSA for ya).

As for me, I often divide up my creative attention, and thus my creativity suffers. Writing a book and checking emails at the same time (or designing a game while surfing the web) turn out to be counter-productive. Instead, I should set aside specific blocks of time for each task.

But I have gotten better at doing this (as well as recognizing when I fail). There have been those long stretches of time where I really do sit down and write without interruption. And I feel much better for it.

How about you, have you noticed that your creative output suffers when you try to share your time? More importantly, have you done anything about it?

I leave you with two quotes (I’ll let you guess which of them comes from The ONE Thing).

To do two things at once is to do neither.

-Publilius Syrus

 

Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.

-Ron Swanson

 

your own thing

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Brief one today.

First, a confession. I really like Maggie Rogers’ music. I don’t know, it just moves me. Ya know?

I only recently watched her success story video, which you can find on YouTube here.

In it, Pharrell Williams (Mr. “Happy” himself), listens to Maggie’s song during a music class critique and is clearly blown away. 

Even better than his facial expressions throughout (and Maggie losing herself to the music) is his feedback. 

“You’re doing your own thing,” Pharrell says, “and that is such a special quality and all of us possess that ability, but you have to be willing to seek.”

I think it’s a wise outlook for any creative. 

You can learn from others and study a craft, but in the end, you have to be boldly creative in the one way you were called to be—your own unique way.

When you do that, it stands out because you're doing something truly special in a world full of imitation.

appreciation

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Typically, I’m about a year behind on watching movies—sometimes longer. 

A few reasons: we don’t make it to the theater much (a product of having two young children), movies take time to watch, and there are a lot out there to catch up on.

That said, we saw La La Land recently. This is hardly a review, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. The songs were great and I got to relive my experiences of life in LA, including my pursuits as both a budding actress and an underground jazz club owner.

Ok, maybe not the last bits.

One thing I found ironic (not sure if it was purposeful) was the song, “City of Stars” since, as anyone who lives there knows, both the light pollution and air pollution prevent the seeing of many celestial bodies in the sky. 

Something that really stuck out to me, and the point of this post (yes, I’m getting to it finally), was the presentation of this universal truth: 

You often won’t appreciate something until you see someone else enjoy it.

I don’t think the following is much of a spoiler, but, if you care, be warned.

One of the main characters, Mia, comes out early on in her relationship with Sebastian informing him that she hates jazz. Sebastian, however, is a jazz enthusiast who dreams of starting his own jazz club in hopes to revive the art form.

Sebastian takes the time to sit Mia down and show her why he loves jazz so much. Over the course of the movie, his excitement rubs off and she, too, learns to appreciate jazz.

Now, I’m no jazz buff, but I’ve seen the same story played out many a time through movies and real life. One person has a real passion for a hobby, sport, art form, etc. Eventually, as that passion is lived out, it spreads and others share the same love.

Why does this happen? Excitement spreads.

I’ve definitely seen it happen with board games, and it’s worked on both sides of the table (heh). I’ve learned to enjoy them because of other friends and family who shared them with me. In turn, I’ve shared them with my own friends and family and their interest has grown.

That’s the beauty of creativity: when you share what you love, others learn to appreciate and enjoy the same things you do. A community develops.

I encourage you, take time to sit with someone else and learn about the things they love and why. You may be surprised how your interests change and what you discover. 

In the same way, don’t be afraid to share what you love with others. You just might find a friend or a fellow aficionado. Hey, maybe you’ll find yourself dancing across tables playing jazz flute. You’ll never know until you try.