story

agency

How much control do you really have over your own life?

That’s a tough one. It’s a question I’ve often wrestled with and I’m not going to pretend I’ve found the perfect answer. 

I can tell you this much: it’s somewhere between absolute control and none at all.

I know. Helpful, right?

There’s a benefit to finding the balance here. If you believe you have no control, you might wonder what the point is in trying. If you think you have total control, you’ll be frustrated and disappointed when, inevitably, things don’t go your way.

Somewhere, there is a place of healthy surrender that allows you to accept what you can’t change and a determination to change what you can.

If this is sounding familiar to you, it’s likely because I’ve touched on it before.

There’s a word that’s come up a lot this past year, one I’ve rested my thoughts upon like a bag of potatoes on a scale. The word: Agency.

Just what is agency?

From wikipedia, agency is:

The capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

Even in Christian circles (and squares too) there are some major disagreements on how much is up to us. Is God doing everything here or do I have some say in the matter? It all comes down to agency.

In story writing, the necessity to create characters with agency comes up again and again. Characters with strong desires and inner drives—the kind that make things happen—tend to be more interesting than those who just get bullied around by the plot and don’t put up a fight.

Indeed, some of the best stories (in my opinion, and probably yours as well) are those in which the protagonist refuses to back down or give up the fight, no matter how grim the odds. The movies IP Man and Unbroken come to mind here. Sorry, Japanese, you don’t get a lot of love in either of those. Does it help if I say Studio Ghibli is amazing? I mean, come on, a cat bus? Wow.

Where were we? Oh yeah, so where does agency come from? Do we muster it up ourselves or is it granted to us from a higher power? Why do some seem to have more of it than others?

Quite frankly, my dear, I’m not quite sure. There is much to consider about agency.

Like most things, it’s helpful to start with a few investigative questions:

What does agency look like in your life and in the lives of people around you?

Is it something you strive for?

Do you take responsibility for your actions?

Do you own the work you do?

Is anything truly yours?

Like I said, I don’t have the answers. But it’s something to think about isn’t it?

How about this: when I figure it all out, I’ll let you know. Until then, I’m going to try my darnedest to do my best at the things that matter most. But at the same time, I want to work on being humble and thankful for even getting the opportunity to try. 

Can any of us really say we’re the masters of our destiny? Or maybe secret agents of agency?

I have my doubts, but, at the end of the day, I’m just glad to be here and I’m glad to be me. And I’m glad you’re here too.

flavor

The idea for this post came about after an experience I had playing the game Skyrim. In case you aren’t familiar, it’s an immense fantasy game from the Elder Scrolls series. 

In the game, I was visiting a small tavern when a serving maid walks up and asks if I’d like her to play some music. I reply yes and pay her 5 gold to do so. She plays some soothing music for a time on what I believe was a lute and then she’s done and walks away. Nothing else happens.

Her family isn’t troubled by dragons. She didn’t lose her brother’s favorite sword. None of that. She just walks away.

In Skyrim, as in many games, just about every interaction you have with anything bears some sort of significance to the overall story of the game. It seems like nearly every person you talk with has some quest they want you to go on, usually with the reward of some advancement such as a new item, skill, gold, more quests, etc.

But, in this case, all you got was the opportunity to hear some nice music for a few coins. Nothing more. 

I was a little disappointed at first. But, when I stopped to think more on it, I felt admiration.

This bit of flavor without function made the world feel more real, more vibrant. 

It got me thinking how flavor serves no immediate purpose yet without it our worlds (both real and imagined) would be quite dull.

You could survive just fine on flavorless food as long as it had adequate nutritional value. In fact, they often seem at odds with one another—flavor and nutrition. But to live such a way seems almost unbearable to me. 

I heard they invented a loaf for prisoners that had all the necessary nutrients to sustain life while being utterly flavorless. In the end, it was considered cruel and unusual punishment.

I remember a point in my life where the only part of the day I really looked forward to was when I got to eat. Draw what conclusions you wish about my mindset here, but I couldn’t imagine having that pleasure taken away.

Taste aside, even the way food is presented adds a whole 'nother level of flavor. The value of going out to a nice restaurant comes from the fact that you aren't just paying for good food, you're paying for an entire eating experience.

Personally, I'm a sucker for plates where the food is arranged to look like a face. I love it when my wife lays out my sandwich and accompanying sides to look like a happy person with a mustache. And I love doing the same for her or my daughter just as much. I would even argue it does make the food taste that much better.

A life without flavor is as dull and gray as a day without the sun.

Flavor pumps lifeblood into an otherwise ordinary story.

Flavor is the extra bling in your attire that gives you style.

The flavor text you may read about a product provides a description to entice you to learn more. It’s exciting.

Flavor is that little bit of detail you add to your art, which, while unnecessary for the work as a whole, is the spark that sets it on fire—especially if you’re really into pyrotechnics. 

Sure, flavor alone may not be enough to fill your belly, warm your body, or engage you in the story. 

Still, I hope the next time you have the opportunity, whether you’re building a bicycle or baking butternut squash biscuits, you don’t forget to add a bit of flavor—just for fun.

Radiolab: color & marrow

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For this week, a couple recommendations, both from the Radiolab podcast:

Colors

All sorts of fascinating stories and discoveries about colors, including the one animal that can see more colors than any other, some people who have additional color sense, and why Homer (The Odyssey one, not Simpson) never mentions the color blue. All fascinating stuff from a creativity standpoint.

Match Made in Marrow

A story of a bone marrow donor, the man she saved and where their unique connection has led them. I found both the presentation and the story itself unique and intriguing. I hope you will as well.

There you have it. You're welcome and enjoy!

respond

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Welcome to the fourth and final installment of my series, The Creative Approach. The title of this one might remind you of a similar post, but I promise it’s different. Read on and I’ll prove it to you.

To recap (to put your hat back on?), the first two steps in the creative approach are observe and question. Once you’ve begun to take a look around and see what there is to see, once you’ve made some inquiries based on your discoveries, the next step is to form a response—a reaction, if you will. 

Every question begs for a response,

This is true even if the response is “I don’t know.” But if that is your response, it’s high time to start finding some things out.

As I often like to do, let’s look at the role response plays in storytelling. A story where the protagonist does not respond to events around them is hardly a story at all. If Bilbo from The Hobbit stays in the Shire, we’ve got no adventure and he's Ringwraith meat in no time. If Luke stays on Tatooine, the rebellion loses and he's Jawa jerky. If Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen from You’ve Got Mail doesn’t stand up and fight for the survival of her little book shop, it simply goes under and the story is over. Yes, I just referenced a chick-flick, what, it’s a good movie and it's got Tom Hanks, so there!

If we refuse to engage with our world, if we wall ourselves in, close the blinds and click shut the ten locks on our doors, what will we gain? A sense of security? Possibly. But it looks like more like defeat to me. What happens when everyone lives this way? Creativity dies and we have no stories to share. A downright shame, I say!

To respond is to do something, to take action.

It’s not enough to wish and wonder. Take a look at the information you have gathered through your observation and questions then find creative ways to address it. Here is one question that will lead you to a response, "what now?" When you live out the answer to that question, you put your creativity to work.

I knew a guy in college who discovered a unique way to potty train his boy: playing the ukulele. According to my classmate, it was the only thing he found that would work—after many other failed attempts. He had a problem (a kid who refused to be potty trained) and his response was to look around at what he had available and test it until he found a solution.

But the answer to the question “what now” doesn’t always have to be a solution to a problem. Perhaps you simply want to develop a hobby. For example: if you’ve learned about a local scrapbooking club, why not join and see how you like it?

There are so many ways to respond to, “what now?" If there is a group of neighborhood kids you often find kicking cans down your street, why not go play hacky sack, show them how to yoyo, or set up a little soccer field? Maybe invite their parents over for dinner afterwords. 

If you see the same homeless woman on the way home from work every day, why not buy her a flower, or make one out of paper? Hey, nothing makes me feel special like a little origami. 

If you pass by an interesting little shop, why not pay them a visit, ask the owner a bit about their life and maybe even write a story about it (or at least a journal entree)? 

Instead of just hitting the like button the next time you see a good post, why not comment how it made you feel, or even talk to the one who posted it in person, who knows where your discussion could lead? Engage, engage, engage.

Is there someone in your life—such as a coworker or acquaintance—who might be able to mentor you or teach you an interesting skill, say woodworking or how to play drums? Is there someone in your life—a friend’s kid perhaps—with whom you could share your experience and offer help through instruction?

A creative response can be as big or as small as you want it to be: a 15 minute project or a lifelong work. However, if you haven’t given much time to creativity in the past, I encourage you to start small. 

As you’ll see, the more you take the creative approach, the more you will exercise your creative muscle and the stronger you’ll become.

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That’s it for now folks, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little romp through the creative approach. If you’ve got any thoughts or experiences on the subject, why not respond by sharing them?

 

Creatively yours,

A.P. Lambert

 

Hey Creatives, when has your response led to an unexpected reaction from someone else? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Links to the rest of the series:

The Creative Approach

Observe

Question

Respond  (current)

details

They say, “the devil is in the details.” (Though who “they” are, I’m never quite sure of.)

I’ve also seen something of a push-back statement recently, “God is in the details.”

So who is the one with control over the details, God or Devil? I think there’s a truth to be found in each statement and, when you come down to it, these phrases are about different situations. That said, would you agree the details are important?

Details matter, as much in creativity as in anything else. 

You know what else is in the details? Life. No, I’m not talking about the cereal, though I suppose it sometimes may be one of the details. Like, if you asked me to relate to you what popular breakfast food Mikey likes. Man, the kid loves that stuff, and, as far as I understand, he doesn’t like much else.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, details: those specific things about your life which make it uniquely yours and not someone else’s. Without them, many of us would look the same, our experiences would be uninteresting and common. But everyone’s got details, things which, when gathered up and analyzed together, make each person stand out from anyone else.

No two lives are the same. I find this fascinating and wonderful. The details of a person, their specific experiences and insights, can make for a great story. And here’s an odd thing, despite each person having their own details, it is through such details we can relate to one another.

I heard a notable quote on this matter from Desiree Burch on the Writing Excuses podcast:

"The more specific a work gets, the more broadly it relates to other people.” 

In other words, the more you want to reach people, the more you need to dive into the details. And, let’s be honest here, the details ain't always pretty. Sometimes it’s the fun and sweet details which make a creative work appealing, but it can also be the raw, ugly truths which sets it apart and draws others in. 

In my own life, I will always live in the shadow of my parent’s divorce, I had extensive plastic surgery as a child and I’ve done some things I’m far from proud of. The details are messy, but they are mine. Then again, I’ve got a wonderful family, loving parents (on all sides), a great job and I love my local church.

When it comes to life, there are so many details: good, bad, ugly, even downright weird (I have a lot of those). Whatever the case, I hope you don’t hide the details, I hope you share them and know that only through those details can your creativity come alive and be appreciated by someone else.

 

Creatively yours,

A.P. Lambert

 

Hey Creatives, what details do you find important, either in your own life or in your favorite creative influences? Let us know in the comments below.

Beyond

As you’ve noticed, the name of this site is Creative and Beyond. You may wonder why I added the beyond and didn’t just go with Creative.com
Truth be told, the domain was taken, as was 100 others like it. These days, you have to get pretty creative just to find a decent domain still available. I mean, you would think supercoolcreative.com might be available, but you’d be wrong. Anyways, there is actually a good reason it’s called Creative and Beyond. But I’ll never tell …

I kid, I kid. I’m about to tell you right now, in just a moment, right after I—oh, sounds like the laundry just finished—be right back.

There, had to hang the lederhosen out to dry with the ascots. Don’t ask.

Now, what were we—oh right, why the beyond? Here’s why: as much as I want to keep creativity center stage (and I aim to), I have to admit there’s more to life than just being creative all the time.

Creativity is an excellent springboard and a helpful guide along the way, but it isn’t the final destination. Really, it’s not a destination at all. While creativity helps us get where we’re going, and provides the fuel to get there, it’s not the reason we go in the first place.

You don’t board a spaceship because you like traveling in spaceships (ok, maybe some of you would—scratch that—maybe I would). No, you get on that ship because you want to go see the stars, or, at least, the planets and such in between—the stars are too bright to look at up-close for long, and way too hot to visit.

Here’s my point: you begin with creativity, you continue with creativity, but you don’t stop there. Creativity is its own reward, but it also demands a purpose, a reason for being, and end goal. Life itself requires purpose, otherwise, what’s the point? Every person does have a purpose—whether they know it or not. If you don’t know yours, then it’s time to begin the search.

Naturally, as a Christ-follower I find purpose in serving and obeying him. For me, everything else comes second (or is viewed in light of it). Now, you may be inclined to look elsewhere for your purpose—I get that. But whatever it is you believe, you still need to know your numero uno, your ultimate goal, why you're here kicking up dirt and what you hope to accomplish before you bite the dirt.

Unless you have a purpose, a desired destination, you're going to lead a very aimless and fruitless existence. You won't be satisfied because, how can you be if you don't even know what you want? Whatever it is you're going for, creativity can help you get there. A creative approach can even help you find meaning and purpose to begin with, but being creative, in itself, is not it.

If you are on that search, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • What are my interests and what do I enjoy about them?
  • What talents do I possess?
  • Where do I have the most experience?
  • What particular resources do I have?
  • What special connections do I have?
  • How can I use my interests, talents, experience, resources and connections to do something great?
  • What is my story—the details of my life in which I find meaning?
  • How can I share my story with someone else?
  • How might I use what I have and who I am to add value to others?

Purpose, like creativity, comes from being part of something bigger than yourself. Until you're willing to step beyond your own boundaries, purpose will remain out of reach. So stretch yourself, ask hard questions and maybe even take a big old leap into the unknown, who knows where you'll land? (I certainly don't)

We’ll keep circling back to creativity, sniffing it out with our collective nose (potential band name?) to the ground, because it’s essential, but we’ve also got to keep our eyes on the skies, always looking to move upward, beyond, to where we’ve never gone before.

Creatively yours,

A.P. Lambert

 

Hey Creatives, where do you find meaning or purpose in your life? Yes, it's a big question, but what better time to think of it than the present? Let us know in the comments below.