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.

overplayed

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Don’t you hate it when a good song gets overplayed? It is out-and-out the worst.

Ok, maybe not the worst, but it’s pretty bad, mostly because something quite enjoyable has now been ruined forever.

This is one of the reasons I just can’t stand listening to the radio.

I’ve found this happens all the time with Christian worship music. Some artist puts out a really moving, powerful song and, before you know it, everyone is playing it all the time. Suddenly you’re wondering if being deaf might not be that bad after all.

Of course, this happens with all kinds of music. I distinctly remember when The Bodyguard came out and I was subjected to hearing Whitney Houston sing, “I Will Always Love You” more times than should be legally permissible under any jurisdiction.

Overplayed songs are the audio equivalent of eating too many pancakes, what once is God’s fluffy golden-brown gift from heaven becomes a morbid, hellish form of unthinkable torture. 

What is it that makes us lose our sense of moderation and indulge in something far beyond any reasonable level of enjoyment?

I think C. S. Lewis may have touched on this in his book, Surprised By Joy. 

“Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again... I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”

Too often we exchange joy for pleasure and then lose both. We find something which brings just the faintest glimmer of joy and then grasp it so tight, we squeeze all the joy out of the thing until the wet sponge we once held is now just a bit of chalky dust ground into the folds of our palms.

Even the creative process is subject to such dreadful behavior. 

We discover some method, some little trick that brings a measure of success and we cling to it like a life raft in the middle of a tempestuous ocean.

Trouble is, the same thing over and over gets old fast and a life raft can only take so many waves before it goes under.

Certainly, it’s good to take the time to appreciate a thing of art and beauty, but if you don’t eventually set is aside to make way for other things, you’ll drain all the life out of it, like some obsessive vampire. Instead, keep the door open for a fresh gust of the new to flow in. And mind the garlic.

Heck, I’ll bet even Whitney Houston had to turn off the radio for a while when her song came out. 

I’d also wager she shares my feelings for pancakes. Come to think of it, maybe that’s really what her song was about …

A brief regard of slow things

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With apologies to Patrick Rothfuss ...

Things take time. Some very good things take a long time.

I’ve been learning to appreciate this, to enjoy the process itself.

The Sequoia national forest is a good place to observe this. Those immense trees have been around for hundreds of years through fire and storm and they just keep on steadily growing. They are remarkable in many ways and, unlike a Los Vegas hi-rise, they didn’t sprout up overnight.

Most of the time, I want to rush everything. Whether it’s my culture or personality (let’s just blame culture, shall we), my tendency is toward instant gratification.

I want it now. Actually, I wanted it yesterday, but since we haven’t quite got time travel down, now will have to do. 

A lot of businesses run this way (even my own at times), and I think the frantic demand for faster and more is killing us.

It definitely doesn’t help where sleep deprivation is concerned.

These last few months have been more a time of rest than rush for me. While I still struggle with feeling unproductive and unaccomplished, I think there is a definite positive side to taking things one slow, measured step at a time. 

The theory holds true with compound interest—very small amounts added in over time equal a much greater end result than a few large deposits.

I heard about a study where they had one group wear spf 15 sunscreen every day and the other wear 65 spf only when they were outside and it was sunny. The result, after only 5 years, was the 15s looked about the same and the 65s look noticeably older. 

Hey, maybe I’m not so crazy when I fret about unprotected exposure to even trace amounts of sunshine. Mr. Sun is a big meanie. 

Anyways, I’m trying to enjoy more things that take time. Lately, I’ve been making batches of cold brew coffee, which, in my completely accurate opinion, tastes way better than the hot brewed kind. But it takes 24 hours of brewing as well as some prep work and cleanup.

Besides the end result (smooth, delicious coffee), the process itself is kinda fun. It makes me feel like some kind of coffee connoisseur.

In my office, I’ve got a standing desk with a hand crank. It was way cheaper than the electronic one. It takes longer and requires some effort to crank that baby up and down a few times a day, but it’s also a nice little break for me.

Sure, it’s more work to grow your own vegetables rather than buy them from the store, to write a letter by hand, or to take a break and soak your feet at the end of the day. But the attention required by slow things leads to a greater appreciation, and, ultimately, enjoyment of the thing itself.

So take a break now and then, smell the flowers or put a kettle of hot water on the stove for some tea. You may just find yourself smiling. 

And, hey, you could use a break.

pandering

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As a writer, I’ve thought often about working with the audience in mind. It’s advice I’ve heard from many a source: know your audience.

It’s not always easy advice to follow. Do I pick one person and write with them in mind? Do I try to guess exactly what an entire demographic would want to read?

I’ve heard some folks advise extensive research before even getting started. First discover a popular subject and then choose a niche market within that. Make sure your every word caters to those within the market.

While this approach may turn out lucrative for some, I fear it may also be soulless, passionless, and disingenuous. In short, it’s pandering.

The way I see it, pandering is playing tunes you know the crowd wants, even if it’s not the music of your own heart.

I saw a comedian making fun of this in country music. I couldn’t help but laugh at how dead-on his spoof of the popular modern country song turned out. He even had a gust of wind blowing his hair at just the right moment.

On the other hand, I just read an article from an author I respect who suggested that writers don’t need to know who their audience is (at least not at first). It took me by surprise, since I don’t think I’ve heard that from anyone else. I appreciated the untypical approach.

Whether you’re a writer, musician, designer, director, chef, or any other form of creative, there will exist a temptation to take the popular route, to put the audience first. But, may I humbly submit, good art is never made this way.

True art is made from inside.

I know, it sounds so hippy and new-agey, like something my high school art teacher might have (most definitely) said. But I’ve found it to be the case. 

When you begin with the things you care about, when the art truly matters to you, it will inevitably matter to someone else, too.

Pandering, on the other hand, may win you some fans, but you’ll also lose a lot of respect from other creatives and you yourself will not find satisfaction in your work.

Now, it’d be wrong to say the audience doesn’t matter. Of course they do. You don’t create in a black hole.

There is clearly a time to consider who would be most interested in your work—once you’ve made it. But don’t start out with the goal of winning friends and influencing people by making what you think they’ll want.

You will find the right audience when you produce the best work you can. 

That happens when you let your creativity flow out of something you delight in, something real to you. Then you will naturally draw the best kind of audience, the one that appreciates you and your work for what it is, an expression of your true self.

follow the leader

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I’ve got a great group of guys I meet with weekly. We talk about life, how we’re feeling, and we do some good ol’ fashion Bible studying. It’s always a good time and I’m thankful to have such friends. 

During a recent hangout, we re-read the familiar story of David and Bathsheba. As is usually the case, I discovered something new this time. 

I noticed how David’s more failing and deceptive cover-up resulted in a breakdown of trust and obedience going down his chain of command all the way to a common messenger. No one does exactly what they’re told to, including the only righteous dude in the whole story, Uriah the Hittite. Ultimately, it leads to the death of an honest man and others with him.

It’s a perfect demonstration of the famous line from Marmion,

“Oh! What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”

I’ve seen the same thing happen with some leaders in my own life and I’m certain my own times of dishonesty have led to other’s harm.

The mantle of leadership is a heavy one because it carries with it the wellbeing of many others.

I have yet to meet a person who didn’t want to be a leader in some way. Perhaps in their field of research, among coworkers, or even in their fantasy football league.

Creatives are no different. We desire to set the standard, to have others who look up to us and respect our person and position. We long to become a source of inspiration to many, to impact those around through what we make.

At the same time, most full-grown adults are a leader in some capacity or another. There is likely someone younger or less experienced in your life who sees you as a leader, whether or not you see yourself that way.

Sadly, very few people consider the responsibilities of being a leader and the consequences of being a bad one. Or maybe they just don’t care. 

You don’t have to look far to find a disgraced or cruel leader who has left a trail of hurt in their wake.

But what makes a good leader? It’d take too long to cover the full gamut here, and there are many great books on the subject, but one quality I’ve admired is humility.

At a leadership conference I heard the phrase, 

“Be thick-skinned and soft-hearted.” 

It’s a good place to start: willing to let the negative stuff bounce off you while still showing love to the people under your care and guidance. 

A leader is someone who other people follow. But a good leader first learns what it means to follow someone else, to learn under another and to grow in empathy.

A good leader gets where they are by learning, but also remains humble enough to continue learning, even when that means accepting correction from another, perhaps even a “follower.”

Consider some of the qualities you most appreciate in a leader. Do you emulate them?

Who might be following you? Have you helped them by setting a good example or led them astray through dishonest speech and practice?

I’ve always found the phrase, “do what I say, not what I do,” to be extremely hypocritical. Honestly, that mindset ticks me off. It’s a personal excuse to harm others with no concern for their wellbeing. 

It’s a poor disguise. Actions, after all, speak louder than words. 

Ultimately, every leader, no matter how few their followers, will be known by their actions. Let yours be good, honest, and, whenever possible, creative.

foresight

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Childrearing. Do they call it that because of how often the tending to rear ends is involved?

No matter—that’s neither rear no there. Whilst childrearing, I often find myself wondering what the little tikes will be like as they grow up.

I think about how future days when my little two year old girl will learn to ride a bike, go to school, get married, and even start her own family (presumably she will no longer be a two year old at that point). I consider what sort of games my half-a-year old son will like to play, what his hobbies might be, and how many messes he will make for us to clean up (many in the nearer future, I’m sure).

There are plenty of opportunities for foresight in life, but I find them most often when I’m around my own kids. Oddly, when it comes to myself, I have an assumption things will stay just about the same. This can’t possibly be true, of course, but I have it anyhow.

Fact is, we’re always changing, one way or another, whether we welcome it or not. The good thing about foresight is it helps us prepare for change, even direct it.

Creatively speaking, this also holds true. The more we plan and prepare for our creative hobbies, goals, and careers, the more likely we are to reach our desired outcomes. Very few people (if any) are successful on accident.

Granted, there will always be a good measure of the unexpected—those twists and turns, maybe even a few ramps, cliffs and loop-the-loops. But unless you plan for some kind of destination and head in that general direction, you’ll never get there.

It’s impossible to prepare for everything, and crazy to even attempt it, but if we never anticipate the future, we’ll constantly be caught off-guard by it. 

I appreciate the advice I found in the childrearing book, Baby Wise

“Begin as you mean to go.”

When you visualize what the results will be and make the necessary preparations toward that end, it’s like gathering and prepping all the right ingredients and preheating the oven before cooking. Turns out, it’s a much better strategy than just throwing whatever you have on hand into a bowl, mixing it up, and hoping for the best. This is how I think some of the more day-to-day lifestyles can turn out, a big mess that fails to rise in the heat of the oven.

When it comes to being a parent, there is virtually no end to what I do not know. But I can still take the little I know and apply it with foresight. I can think about what sort of family I want to help build and what I need to do now in order to get there. 

Eventually, one Lego brick at a time, we’ll end up with a sweet castle that has its own moat and a working drawbridge, or at least an impressively tall tower that my kids will enjoy knocking over.