Tag Archives: creativity

Blank pages waiting to be written on

a blank notebook page

A blank piece of paper is an empty canvas just waiting to be filled with imaginative musings.

Every time I go to a Dollar Tree or a Big Lots or somewhere like that, I have to buy a spiral-bound notebook. It’s a compulsion.

It’s even gotten to where I have to avoid the school supplies aisle in the supermarket. I always end up with a Spiderman or Hello Kitty notebook in my cart, and then I have a hard time making eye contact with the cashier during checkout.

I’d probably feel less embarrassed buying Preparation H.

And heaven forbid I spot an Office Depot or a Staples along the highway. That’d be like an alcoholic stumbling onto a Budweiser warehouse. If I do see an office-supply store, I have to swerve the car Steve McQueen-style and speed down a side street.

I feel like Mel Gibson in that movie Conspiracy Theory, where he’s programmed to buy endless copies of Catcher in the Rye.

Maybe I was once a CIA operative whose memory was erased, and instead of having covert-ops skills, I was a voracious note-taker. If they made a movie about me, it would be Tom Cruise (or Will Ferrell; whoever’s available) dropping into the dense jungles of some war-torn foreign country. Flexing his gargantuan biceps, he’d flip open his tattered journal and start scribbling furiously with a leaky pen. (I can tell you from personal experience, it’s a pain getting ink smeared on your gargantuan biceps.)

I threw out a bunch of notebooks the other day, because it was clear I didn’t really need them. Each one was half-filled with half-baked ideas, blog posts that went nowhere, and stories I started but didn’t really want to finish.

That’s not to say they were a waste, though. After all, a rose that blossoms and wilts prematurely is prettier than a rose that never blooms at all. I’d rather scrawl down an idea and throw it away later than to have it flicker through my mind and never have a record of it. I’ve lost a lot of great ideas that way. (Well, I’d like to think they were great, but I might be biased.)

I like to buy notebooks because I love to write. All those blank pages are a canvas just waiting to be filled with a writer’s wonderful prose.

When I see a blank notebook, I’m not seeing the book itself. Rather, I’m seeing all of its imaginative potential. A blank notebook can be a novel, a compilation of essays, a collection of ideas. You can doodle in it, jot down an observation on the fly, record a snippet of a conversation you overheard on the bus.

A notebook isn’t just a stack of blank, lined paper. It’s a potential tapestry of unfettered human thought.

In his introduction to The Gunslinger, the first book in his Dark Tower series, Stephen King wrote how the whole novel came about because of yellow paper. He worked in a college library with his future wife, Tabitha, and they each got a package of colored paper.

To him, that ream of paper was a blank canvas just waiting to be filled with imaginative musings. He took it home, put a sheet in the typewriter, and dashed out the first sentence to what would become not only a novel, but a best-selling series.

I feel the same way about blank paper, which is why I love notebooks. They make me want to create – to write.

It may sound weird, but the mere sight of a blank notebook excites me. My imagination starts going in several different directions, and I start daydreaming about how I could fill all those pages with chapters of the Great American Novel. (Or fart jokes; whichever leaps to mind first.)

To me, a notebook is a blank canvas. And I think all of us have our own version of a blank canvas – something we do that brings joy to others and enriches our everyday existence.

For a gardener, a planter of topsoil is a blank canvas.

For a decorator, an empty room is a blank canvas.

For a landscaper, a patch of weeds is a blank canvas.

For a painter, a blank canvas is … well, a blank canvas.

We all have our own version of a blank canvas. What’s yours? 

Going the distance – albeit with short bursts of speed

man jogging down path

Because priorities.

I’m more of a sprinter than a long-distance runner.

Actually, let me clarify. When it comes to track, my preferred position is spectator.

But if you were to drag me back in time to high school, re-enroll me in my sophomore year, and force me to fulfill my physical-education requirement by taking a semester of track (you heartless time-traveling bastard, you) —  then yes, I’d be more of a sprinter than a long-distance runner.

My dad’s the same way. We work best with short bursts of energy, and not prolonged periods of continual exertion.

Case in point: I can’t write every day.

I’ve tried, but it’s a goal I’ve struggled to keep … sort of like my New Year’s resolution to jog each evening. (Come to find out, binge-watching Top Chef at night puts a damper on my daily exercise regimen.)

I know writing every day would be good for me. And it’s something I’d like to do. After all, the most successful writers are the ones that train themselves to make writing a habit. They treat it like a job.

Although I suppose I treat writing like a job, too – only it’s one that involves a shovel, a pile of cow dung, and knee-high wading boots.

That is to say, it’s not only an unenjoyable job – it’s often downright excruciating.

Part of that is my penchant for perfection. Rewriting and editing are important parts of the process, but it’s easy to wring the heart from a piece through rigorous revision. That’s a problem I know all too well.

There’s a vein of creativity that runs through the mind, and my best work emerges when I can tap into it and transcribe the thoughts that stream effortlessly through my fingertips.

On the other hand, striving for technical precision suffocates the life from my writing, leaving me with a series of grammatically accurate sentences that collectively lack a soul.

Another issue I have is writer’s block. There are so many days when I sit down to write and nothing’s there. It feels like I’m wearing concrete boots and slogging through a mental cavern of thick cobwebs. (Unfortunately, today is one of those days.)

Other days, I’ll feel clear-headed and energetic, and I’ll dash out two or three blog posts in one sitting.

It’s weird, but apparently, it’s how I work.

I still try to write every day, but if nothing’s there, I’m not too hard on myself.

I also remind myself to have fun. If I’m not enjoying what I’m writing, then likely no one else will enjoy reading it.

I also remind myself that perfection is an illusion, and striving for it will suck the life from my writing. When it comes to creativity, good enough is truly good enough.

So if you see me on the track, just know I won’t be running the mile full-steam. I’ll dash forward, walk for a while, then dash forward until I run out of oomph.

Again, it’s how I work.

And maybe that’s OK. Because whether I’m sprinting or walking, I’m still going the distance. I’ll get to the finish line eventually.

It’s just that it’ll be on my own terms — and, apparently, in my own sweet time.

An essay of epic proportions

man standing alone in barren desert

Funny thing, but I enjoy writing more when I don’t take it so seriously. Who would have thought?

I sat down to write a blog post the other day, and this overwhelming sense of exhaustion draped over me.

The idea of piecing together a coherent essay – complete with a gripping lede, a compelling thesis, and a succinct conclusion to tie it all up – seemed daunting and not worth the strain. I was tired from a full day of work, and I couldn’t summon the strength to compose a compelling journalistic masterpiece.

I sighed and rested my head in my hands.

Why do I even keep a blog? I thought to myself. It’s all work and no play. It’s not fun anymore.

And right on cue, as if to reaffirm a lesson I already knew, a scene from the 1996 movie Mr. Holland’s Opus started playing in my mind.

In the film, Richard Dreyfuss stars as a high-school music teacher. It’s not his dream job — he’d much rather be at home, working on his own compositions — but throughout the movie he enriches the lives of generations of students by instilling in them a love for music.

There’s a part where a girl is staying after class to practice the clarinet, but she keeps hitting a sour note. She gets frustrated and wants to give up.

So Dreyfuss puts a record on the turntable. It’s “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen. He tells the girl that even though the music is simple and really not that good technically, he loves it.

He loves it, he says, because music is supposed to be fun. It’s not supposed to be torture and drudgery and endless hours of frustration. It’s supposed to be enjoyable.

And he’s right. The music that touches people comes from the heart. It may not be technically precise, but it’s got soul – and soul is what resonates. It reaches people on a deeper level and evokes all sorts of emotions.

Essentially, Dreyfuss was telling the girl to lighten up. By treating her practice sessions as excruciating struggles toward perfection, she was forgetting why she wanted to play music in the first place. Her determination to be perfect was draining all the joy from what should have been a pleasurable pastime.

No one decides to become a musician – or, for that matter, a writer – with the hope that the challenges will be agonizing and impossible to overcome.

They decide to do it because they want to express themselves – and because they derive enjoyment from pursuing their craft.

And that was my issue. Like the girl in the movie, I was treating my hobby as if it were strenuous toil. There was no fun in it anymore because I was taking it too seriously.

In my unyielding determination to succeed, I had forgotten why I started blogging in the first place.

I realized, too, that blog posts aren’t high-school essays. They don’t have to have an outline, or a thesis, body, and conclusion. There’s no strict headmistress looking over my shoulder, ready to rap my knuckles with a ruler if I split an infinitive or misplace a modifier.

Blog posts can be whatever we want. There’s no structure required.  Mental wanderings are perfectly acceptable, if that’s your thing. You don’t have to write an essay of epic proportions.

Like music, writing should be fun. Fun writing flows from the fingertips, while strict writing requires endless tinkering and unwavering deliberation.

So like the girl in the movie, I’m going to try to loosen up and enjoy myself. After all, I’m here to have fun.

And just as technical precision doesn’t infuse a piece with heart, a single sour note doesn’t deprive it of its soul.

Long periods of harsh drought

hand holding penI recently watched a biography about Woody Allen, in which the comedic legend said that throughout his career, he’s never suffered from writer’s block.

No kidding. In addition to his numerous essays and plays, Allen’s been writing and directing a movie a year since the 1970s. His voluminous output makes Shakespeare look like a literary lightweight.

Unlike Allen, I suffer from writer’s block pretty much all the time. I don’t know why. I used to write a lot more when I was younger, but in those days my writing was more careless and less structured. I just jotted down whatever thoughts popped into my head and called it good.

So interestingly, when I took courses to improve my writing, they made me not want to write anymore. I focused more on structural perfection than interesting content. Instead of jotting down all those frenzied ideas, I was too busy rewriting the opening sentence until it was grammatically sound. And then I’d get so frustrated that I’d rip up my writing.

So I think perfectionism plays a role in my chronic affliction. You can’t dam a flow without compromising the stream. But unlike a reservoir, those ideas don’t pool up and swell. Unless they’re unleashed, they dry up and vanish.

And where there once gushed a river, all that’s left is a tricking stream. And not only is it shallow, but it’s also murky and stagnant. Keep reading…

Is writing a useless skill?

Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer.

It seemed like an inevitable path. By age 18, I had written hundreds of poems and short stories, as well as two full-length novels. I’d also earned all As in my high-school English classes. I even had a teacher who once suspected me of plagiarism, because of the quality of my writing. (My consistent work later convinced her I was honest.)

In college, I majored in journalism and minored in English, graduating with distinction. I also finished a third novel in my sophomore year.

Originally, I had planned to major in English. At the time, however, a journalism degree seemed more lucrative, offering a wider variety of career options.

Talk about hindsight. Journalism is now ranked as one of the most useless college degrees you can get. (If you want to buy in to such rankings.) Keep reading…

That magical place where movies are made

Beneath Hollywood’s sleek and glamorous exterior lies a core of deception and decay. So naturally, that's where I need to go to make my dreams come true.

Beneath Hollywood’s sleek and glamorous exterior lies a core of deception and decay. So naturally, that’s where I went to make my dreams come true.

So if you want to hear how I succeeded in show biz, you’ll have to stay tuned. It’s an ongoing story. But it does start with a batch of scripts I took to Polished Stone Pictures a week after completing my treatments. They gave me $15 pocket money and put me on a bus headed for Hollywood. Such kind folks who run that facility.

What treatments, you ask? Oh, a little nervous breakdown — that’s all it was. A brief, yearlong hospitalization. And now freedom at last to pursue my career in show biz. Already I can see my autobiography on bookstore shelves: “From Nuthouse to Hollywood: How Hard Work and Electroshock Treatments Led to One Man’s Unimaginable Success.”

Hollywood’s got the shimmer and sheen of a place that makes magic (and unnecessary political statements). At its core lies a fantasy in action, where meek peasants can ascend to superstardom, and where raw, spellbinding talent pours coffee at the corner Starbucks. It’s a land of glimmer and glamor, moguls and mistresses, pariahs and paparazzi (and other hackneyed, alliterative combinations that aren’t immediately leaping to mind). It’s a town where the possibilities are limited only by the scope of your imagination … as well as the clenched-assed accountants who administer the pursestrings. Keep reading…

Writing about writing

All of the writing manuals say to write what you know, but I don’t really know anything. My only real hobby is writing, but you can only write so much about writing before you say everything you have to say. It’s a fruitless endeavor — sort of like an apple tree that never learned to grow apples. You know: fruitless. (Pretty clever analogy, huh? I came up with that one because I’m a writer.)

Writing About Writing

I used to have an interest in stamps, but I had to use my collection to pay the bills. Literally. I’d run out of Elvis Presley Forever stamps, and I didn’t feel like driving to the post office. There’s always a bunch of people standing in line, and the wait takes forever. By the time it takes to reach the front of the line, I could hand-deliver all my bills.

Which I should have done, in retrospect, instead of sacrificing my stamp collection. Especially since all of my checks were returned anyway due to insufficient funds.

The writing experts are following their own advice when they say to write what you know, because they themselves are writing about writing. Which is why they’re considered writing experts, I guess.

So maybe if I write about writing, I, too, will become a writing expert. And then I’ll know more than I do now. And if I start to know more, then maybe I can write more. (At least that’s according to the advice of all those writing experts.)

But if I write only about what I know, then my career is going to be pretty brief. I’d rather write about what I don’t know. But then I’d have to fill my blog posts with gibberish, because I wouldn’t know what I was talking about.

I’d like to write about my stamp collection, but I don’t have it anymore because I had to pay the bills. Only I couldn’t pay the bills because I lacked sufficient funds in my account. And I lacked sufficient funds in my account because I don’t earn any money writing.

And that’s because I know very little about the subject.

So I guess I should learn more. Then I could become an expert and actually know what I was talking about.

As it stands now, I had to fill this blog post with gibberish.

That’s not the write answer

More people now are blogging, Tweeting, texting, e-mailing and Facebooking than in generations past.

Everyone Can Write Well

This is a terrible setback for society. Not so much because people are ignoring their loved ones to stare at their phones, or because it’s turning regular folks into rabid narcissists (the kind who post every boring, mundane detail about their lives — such as the recent birth of a child).

No, the main problem is that by using all this new-fangled technology, more people are communicating through writing than ever before. And by communicating more, they’re becoming better writers.

And by becoming better writers, they’re endangering the livelihoods of those of us who write for a living. (Though I don’t make money, so I guess it’s not that great of a living. Stupid journalism education.)

Case in point: My accountant sent me a troubling e-mail in which she said there’s very little money remaining in my bank account. (That wasn’t the troubling part. I’m a writer; there’s always very little money remaining in my bank account.)

What bothered me was the superior quality of her writing. Not a word was out of place, and her grammar was impeccable. She even used a semicolon correctly. (“Allen, I’m so sorry you’re broke; however, you still owe me $150 from last month. Thanks.”)

Where exactly does an accountant get off having the writing skills of an English major? She’s supposed to be good with numbers and formulas, not words. Words are my business. They’re all I know. (Well, the dirty ones, anyway.)

So not only does my accountant have a valuable skill set that helps her contribute to the betterment of society, but she can write well, too. She has two sets of skills compared to my one. I couldn’t do her job, but she could easily do mine. (And knowing her, she probably wouldn’t have split that infinitive like I just did. Talk about getting 1-upped big time.)

This horrifying epidemic is only getting worse. It seems with the proliferation of social media, everyone’s learning to write good. (Sorry – I meant “well.” Luckily, my accountant’s standing over me as we speak, helping me edit.)

Even the neighborhood loan shark (the go-to lender for many a broke writer) left a grammatically correct note taped to my door. Sure, he threatened to break my kneecaps, but he did so using an em-dash to separate thoughts. That shows a degree of professionalism not often found in the darkest reaches of the criminal underworld. A less-literate thug might have used a comma and created a run-on sentence.

I’m not saying I want people to communicate through grunts and grumbles (I see enough of that each night on CNN). But please, leave the professional-level writing to the professionals. You don’t see me intruding on your profession. (Whatever it is you do, rest assured, I can’t do it. I can’t do anything. That’s why I opted to write for a living.)

I suspect the problem’s only going to get worse. Times are tough, and competition is fierce among us writers. The good ones can barely get by. The not-so-good ones (and I won’t name names) owe money to their accountant and the neighborhood loan shark.

So if you’re not a journalist or an editor or a goateed caffeine addict writing the Great American Novel at the corner Starbucks, then by all means, feel free to make mistakes in your writing. Misspell a few words. Misplace a modifier or two. Write “except” when you really mean “accept.” The professionals will thank you. (Just don’t expect flowers or a fancy gift, because most of them are broke.)

One last word of advice: If you’re considering writing for a living, don’t. The money’s not good, and it’s hard to get around with broken kneecaps. Plus, you have to pitch your ideas to publications, and hope they’ll except your proposal.

Sorry — “accept.” (It helps to have an accountant over your shoulder.)

Hopefully remaining hopeful

bad grammar sign on fence

Good thing all grammar books are consistent in their guidance. Right?

There’s nothing more calming, peaceful and spiritually refreshing than writing. Unfortunately, with our fast-paced, modern-day lifestyles, most people are too harried to try it.

Writing also allows people to preserve a part of themselves for posterity. It’s a fun and creative way to preserve memories — and it’s certainly less expensive than being cryogenically frozen.

Unfortunately, writing is difficult. Creativity doesn’t come easily … unless, of course, you’re a Hollywood screenwriter who uses a formula. Being rich doesn’t hurt, either.

For everyone else, though, learning to write well is frustrating. Writing is a vexing pursuit … which might explain why so many vexing people are writers.

The first step to writing is nailing the basics. Unfortunately, the basics are so numerous, and so confusing, that many English 101 students are ready to nail them to the wall.

Even professional writers and grammarians often disagree. And these are the people who establish the rules.

For example, in an essay titled “Las Vegas — West Egg?” writer John H. Irsfeld offers a critique of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. (The essay is available in a compilation titled East of Eden, West of Zion.)

“[‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’] is not what one would safely call a work of the first intensity,” Irsfeld says. “The word ‘hopefully’ is used in its colloquial misplacement; ‘or whatever’ dangles uselessly, emptily, at the end of too many clauses. Works of the first intensity lack such rough edges.”

“‘Hopefully’ used in its “colloquial misplacement”? What the heck does that mean?

For an answer, we can turn to The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. The short, to-the-point grammar guide has become a common component of English 101.

Regarding the word “hopefully,” the writers proclaim: “This once-useful adverb meaning ‘with hope’ has been distorted and is now widely used to mean ‘I hope’ or ‘it is to be hoped.’ Such use is not merely wrong, it is silly.”

Well, then, call me a silly bastard. Apparently, I’ve been using the word incorrectly. But then again, maybe not:

“Grammarians, get a grip,” says writer Constance Hale in her grammar guide titled Sin and Syntax. “‘Hopefully’ as a sentence adverb is here to stay.”

All right, now I’m hopelessly confused.

It’s no wonder so many writers go berserk. How can you unleash your inner creativity when you have to worry about misusing adverbs? And what the hell is an adverb, anyway?

“All adverbs,” says Hale, “express either —”

Never mind; I don’t care anymore. The rules are too confusing. Hopefully, I can find something better to do with my time — like being cryogenically frozen.

Coffee, doughnuts and other tools for writers

In his afterword to “The Big Silence,” the first of three detective novels featuring private eye Jack Ross, writer Bernard Schopen says:

“Rereading something I wrote — be it in the distant past, the recent past, yesterday, an hour ago — is usually an occasion of intense embarrassment. Almost always the gap between the remembered intention and the actual execution looms like The Abyss … I reread, and I squirm and flush and sweat. Because writers — or at least the kind of writer I am — can’t really reread; they can only, as they reread, rewrite. And cringe.”

Schopen needn’t worry; he’s a fine writer. I recommend his books (I’ve read all his novels) to anyone interested in detective fiction and stories about Nevada. His work combines simple storytelling with deeper themes such as region and identity. They’re refreshing in an era when most popular fiction is … well, simple storytelling.

Coffee and Writing

But Schopen’s words resonate. I, too, cringe every time I reread my work. I hate finding a tattered school paper or forgotten short story. It’s disheartening to discover your creations are crap. If my old work is a window to the past, then I’d rather draw the blinds.

During my freshman year in college, I wrote a politically charged humor column for the university’s student newspaper. The problem was that, at the time, my politics were not well-formed, and the only humor was my terrible diction.

I stumbled across some of my columns when rummaging through storage. Here’s an excerpt from one I wrote about exercise:

“The notion of achieving adequate physical fitness is appreciated by many, although the more preferred methods of personal maintenance may differ slightly among individual people … A concept of physical atonement may be quite facile to embrace, but rather difficult to regularly and successfully conduct, which of course ultimately leads to consequent hopelessness, broken resolutions, and an eventual submission to a deleterious lifestyle which includes very little bodily activity but numerous ventures to nearby fast food dining establishments.”

Wow. And Bernard Schopen thinks he should be embarrassed?

I quit the column after my first semester. No one seemed interested in it (including me), and I realized I could be spending my study hours on more productive activities — such as drinking and trying to date women (big emphasis on “trying”).

Later, I enrolled in a Journalism writing course, where I learned I had no idea how to write. Before, I’d always written with my heart and soul. Never before had I considered using my brain.

But clear writing, I learned, stems from clear thinking. Clearing the cobwebs from your mind leads to sharper, more fluid prose.

Therefore, I turned to the strongest fluid I could find — Starbucks Sumatra — and added it to my arsenal. Journalists need several tools to perform their jobs, including notebooks, pens and computers. The more important, but seldom mentioned, are coffee, cigarettes and doughnuts.

Journalism is the craft of effective communication. My Journalism 101 professor effectively communicated this idea by giving me Fs on my first few papers, which he said were wordy and overwrought.

“I want streamlined sentences,” he said. “Shun wordiness. Shed the fat from your prose.”

After a lot of hard work, I finally did shed the fat from my prose. Unfortunately, it all moved to my ass. I gave up the doughnuts and stuck to the cigarettes and coffee.

Prose stylists, who focus on form, might call journalistic writing skeletal, or bare-boned. To which I say, so what? That’s the point. It’s concise and accessible. Expressing an idea in the fewest words possible is the noblest of feats. (A concept I wish my Grandma Helen would learn, especially when she’s had a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and starts going off on politics.)

If you want to read bad writing (and you don’t happen to have a copy of The Bridges of Madison County nearby), consult a college textbook. Those are truly examples of muddled, murky, incomprehensible academic gibberish. Scholars might be smart, but their writing sucks. You can scour the pages for a lucid sentence, but you’ll have better luck finding Waldo in the Land of Waldos. (Hint: He’s wearing a sock.)

My journalism texts, however, taught by example. Not only did they dictate how to write, but they themselves were well-written. You can’t learn writing from a bad writer any more than you can learn fitness from a chubby instructor … which calls into question a great many high-school gym teachers.

Academics would rather inflate their egos than impart their wisdom. Their writing is verbose and baffling. They bury their knowledge under clumps and clutters of needless phrases. It’s like sifting through sewage to find a nugget of knowledge. And how can you tell the knowledge-bearing nuggets from the ones that are crap?

What’s worse, many college students duplicate this atrocious style. In order to meet arbitrary word-count requirements — and often working under vague, murky assignment guidelines — students assume the discursive diction of the typical scholar. Being wordy, after all, makes it easier to meet word count.

The effect is many college graduates can’t write. Of course, they can’t do a lot of things, such as locate Iraq on a map or describe the economic theories of Adam Smith.

These days, good writing is scarce — especially on this blog. But I do try. I strive to make my writing readable — and my hope is that people will read it. I’d like to reread my posts and not “squirm and flush and sweat,” as Schopen says — though I’m already doing that from all the Starbucks Sumatra and sugary snacks.

Technology has leapfrogged forward, but good writing is still the key to reaching audiences. The best websites dispense nuggets of knowledge, and not the kind that are less savory.

So as your tour this giant, sprawling blogosphere, keep a lookout for all the informative, insightful and entertaining blogs. Visit them and bookmark them. Let the writers know you appreciate their work.

And when you’re done with all that, don’t forget to visit mine!