So, let’s talk

Earlier today, I had a little sit-down with myself to figure a few things out. You see, my inner critic has been working overtime in the past month or two, absolutely convincing me that the following were completely, and without question, true:

  • My words were no longer meaningful, and they no longer mattered with the masses;
  • Blogs were dead, stupid, antiquated, washed up, and no longer read (hey! just like me);
  • Your audience is sick of you;
  • You are pathetic to think otherwise; and
  • Hell, you are pathetic.

These thoughts stopped me from writing anything. I did not even write in my daybook. It was a ridiculous, self-piteous period of wallowing in negativity and doubt.

So, as I said, I had that little sit-down convo with me-truly, and I’m not going to lie, I let the expletives fly, as Seinfeld’s Kramer says.

It felt good. It really did. I needed to hear myself fight back against all that fake news that I have been self-spewing. I made the commitment to blog tonight, but with a purpose:

To not teach, preach, or inspire.

Gasp!

So, not only did I throw myself back into the fire, I threw away the crutches and dove in head first without a safety net.

Which brings me to what I’ll be doing here at The Baltimore Writer for the foreseeable future. Many years ago, I started writing “Rus Uncut” entries, and they were well received because they were so raw. I’ve tried a few times to get back to that, but I kept falling back into the teach-and-preach model.

Pathetic, right?

So here we are tonight, willing (desperately) to give it another shot.

What does that mean? Probably some really boring blogs, some out-there thinking, and maybe some pretty pictures to keep you coming back to see something shiny.

It means all of this, maybe none of it, maybe some Franken-mix of a bunch of different things. And I’ve opened comments for you to join in with the uncut-ness of the whole thing.

But what I can promise you is that it will be raw, uncut, and authentic. All Rus.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I need to do this for me, though, so there. You are welcome to follow along, share your thoughts, or unsubscribe entirely and vote to have The Baltimore Writer completely scrubbed from the interwebs.

We’ll see how this goes. Thanks for whatever choice you make (except for the web scrubbing. That would suck for sure).

Yours, sans teaching and preaching,

Rus

Why We Fear Creativity, And How To Let Go

001creativity

I have been in this cafe for a little over an hour, writing in my Daybook to the ambient sounds of chatter, the clanging of dishes, all blended with the meditative, hollow sounds of Deuter playing his bamboo flute. On these pages, I have written about singular moments I experienced decades ago along the marshy lands lining the Patuxent River, the beautiful flow of my life in this present here in Baltimore, and the possibilities that await elsewhere in this world with an open heart.

It was not hard to get here. In fact, I’m not really in a cafe at all. Try a dining room table in my suburban home next to my kids who are experimenting with crayons, sketch pencils, and a lot of funny faces.

But I feel like I am in a cafe, thanks to the assistance of coffitivity.com with the background noise. Because of their creative and innovative thinking, I am able (as are you) to find a fertile environment for creativity anywhere and at anytime.

(I have to admit, I discovered Coffitivity in Anahad O’Connor’s article in the New York Times (published 6/21/13), How The Hum of a Coffee Shop Can Boost Creativity. O’Connor cites a fantastic study published in the Journal of Consumer Research on the correlation between ambient noise and enhanced creativity. The findings by Mehta, Zhu, and Cheema — the authors of the study, through a series of five experiments, showed how and why moderate ambient background noise can enhance creativity, primarily by opening up the mind to think more abstractly.)

Being creative: it doesn’t take planning, or great orchestration, or even cooperation from others.

All it really takes is a decision, on your behalf, to embrace the powers of creativity within you and live a mindful and inspired life.

Too busy? Too old? Not your style?

Nope. Sorry — Not buying it. Everybody’s busy doing the work that everybody else expects, we all think we are older than we really are, and too many of us are trying to discard the things we have been told are foolish, childish, and a downright waste of our time.

I’m not buying any of it, and you shouldn’t either.

We have been fed, far too long, the belief that “being creative” is something extreme artists do. They are poor, they are messy, and they are crazy, wild madmen and madwomen set out to do outrageous things.

Those creative types, always cutting off their ears and stuff. Really! Get over it already and find a real job like everybody else!

Yes. Creativity has gotten a pretty bad rap over the last century or so. It’s not your fault, though, and it’s not even your parents’ fault; it goes a little deeper than that. But we don’t need to be concerned about the past so much. We need to be concerned about what is happening to creativity right now to you, me, and even our children in our heavily funded school systems. (if you haven’t stumbled over this TedTalk gem by Sir Ken Robinson, go grab a fresh cup of coffee and push play; you won’t be disappointed.)

The Suppression of Creativity

Julia Cameron, author of the best-selling book and program, The Artist’s Way, has spent her entire career fighting for the right of all individuals, young and old, to reclaim their creative souls and live a more mindful, inspired life. In her follow-up to Artist’s Way, Vein of Gold, she argues that the first step is to awaken from the ho-hum expectations passed down to us. “Most of us are not raised to actively encounter our destiny. We may not know we have one. As children, we are seldom told we have a place in life that is uniquely ours alone. Instead, we are encouraged to believe that our life should somehow fulfill the expectations of others, that we will (or should) find our satisfactions as they have found theirs.”

How sad! But it makes sense, doesn’t it? Somewhere in our childhood, right around the age of 8 or 9, our lives changed. The time had arrived to put away the colored pencils and get “serious” about life.

Cameron continues: “Rather than being taught to ask ourselves who we are, we are schooled to ask others. We are, in effect, trained to listen to others’ versions of ourselves. We are brought up in our life as told to us by someone else! When we survey our lives, seeking to fulfill our creativity, we often see we had a dream that went glimmering because we believed, and those around us believed, that the dream was beyond our reach. Many of us would have been, or at least might have been, done, tried something, if…If we had known who we really were. But how were we to know?”

Ugh. It makes me sick every time I think about how we suppress the very key to innovative thinking and inspired living. Our greatest accomplishments in the history of our world have come about from being creative! And yet, we treat creativity like some banished, bad kid who has spent a little too much time being naughty, wasting everyone’s time with silly games and stupid thoughts.

And, now that we are older, we seem to think that it is just too late to do anything about it.

But I have a family, a job, other responsibilities now…

Yes. Most of us do. But the truth is this (and here’s where we can boldly begin to discard the excuses and the worries): We can use these constraints to our advantage, once we accept creativity back into our lives.

Turning Constraints into Creative Opportunities

Daniel Levitin, speaking on “Creativity in Music: Constraints and Innovation” at Stanford University’s Behavioral Science Summit earlier this month, argued that much of our creative explorations that have led to masterpieces are a result of evolution, rather than just revolution.

Levitin defines creativity in the following way: “Works of art that we judge to be the most creative involve the artists working under constraints to produce something novel, or something that pushes the edges of these assumed constraints.”

In other words, because of these constraints, our creativity can manifest into great things, for ourselves, for our communities, or for the world.

Well, it’s not too late. I am here to tell you: You are a creative individual, and you have the right and the duty to live a mindful and inspired life right now. Maybe it’s time to take an online creative writing course, or at the very least, head to your local bookstore and pick up a new journal and begin creating. What matters most, right now, is that you realize there’s a creative YOU waiting to be rediscovered, right now, and you don’t have to do anything extreme to bring creativity back into your life.

Why wait any longer? A creative, mindful, and inspired life is waiting within you, ready to be ignited.

 

 

Five Non-Writing Strategies To Strengthen Your Stories

47-imageCreating stories — regardless of the genre — is all about making it real for your readers. They need to buy in to what you have created. If they don’t, then your credibility is shot, your readers will stop buying your books, and you can forget about establishing any kind of relationship with a reader base. There are too many books out there tempting them for some love and attention. Although readers are naturally creatures of comfort and will want to stick with an author they like, they also have no tolerance for writers who don’t keep it real.

That can be a struggle for us, at times. We sit in front of the blank screen, fingers at the keyboard, waiting for some kind of brilliant inspiration to arrive. At times, it feels no different than dropping a fishing line in a cold pond, waiting for that big bass to take the bait and bring us the high action we’ve been waiting for.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be such a passive struggle, waiting for that great idea to strike. We just need to activate our creative thinking in non-writing ways to trigger that high-action writing whenever we need it.

Here are five strategies I use to keep my focus in writing stories that are believable, engaging, and accessible to my readers, no matter who they might be.

1. Observe Behaviors.

Being mindful of those around you is a skill you can always work on. Whether you are at a mall, in your car, or at an hour-long business meeting, you can observe the different behaviors exhibited from the people with you.

For writers, though, mere observation is not enough. We begin to ask questions of the people we are observing:

What are they thinking? Is it consistent with how they are behaving?
What might be their next move, action, or reaction?
Is their body language consistent with their words?
What is the source or the origin of their behavior, their expressed emotion, their actions?

These are just a few questions to get you going. The important thing is that you are mindful of the behaviors of others around you, and you consider the reasons for those behaviors. Then, when you sit down to develop a character for one of your stories, you have already stored in your idea bank — at the very least — 10-15 good behavior sketches, complete with motives.

2. Listen To Music.

I spend hours each week listening to new music, trying to find the right artists to fit my creative needs. I have music for daybooking, drafting, revising, editing, and even handling the business side of owning a writing business.

One of the most important playlists I have is for creative inspiration. I scour the library trays filled with CDs for new movie soundtracks — particularly movies that I have never seen. I am looking for music that might tell a story, that might take me on a bit of a journey, thus kickstarting some kind of creative exploration.

The first soundtrack that I used for creative inspiration (many, many years ago) was for the movie Country. Pianist George Winston wrote and played about half of the pieces, which are inspiring enough. But the other tracks were driving, compelling works of music that helped me create stories set in the Civil War and other places. I internalized some of the more powerful songs and used them for personal inspiration and encouragement. Anything is possible when I listen to this music — even to this day, nearly 20 years later.

I have to say, music has brought me to where I am today. I couldn’t create without it!

3. Design Your Setting.

Sometimes, when I am stuck with characters, I turn to my settings and sketch out an idea of where everything is. I do this in meticulous fashion, naming the streets, analyzing the hilly or flat nature of some of the roads, and looking for connections, relationships, history.

It’s all there in the drawing, and it is so inspiring to write a piece where you can actually see where the characters are living — RIGHT NOW.

I do these sketches in my Daybook, on big sheets of paper, and even on paper scrolls that are used as (typically!) easel paper for children. They usually end up on my walls, taped to my computer, or scanned and used as desktop art on my computer.

Design your setting, and give your characters the chance to live freely in their own town!

4. Create Storyboards.

Storyboards are nothing more than little pictures of sequential action in a story. Film directors use these all the time when they are trying to visualize how a scene might look when they shoot it. They consider the different angles and camera shots to enhance the mood or intensity of the scene.

Writers can use storyboards to fulfill the age-old desire to tell stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. What is happening when the story begins? What conflicts arise? How are they resolved?

This creative form of problem solving is also good for meditating on a challenge in your story, or just putting your ideas into a product form that brings to light the visualization of a particular scene.

5. Visualize Your Action.

Visualizing an action or scene in my stories is always great fun. In fact, it is best if I go “on location” to a setting similar to the one in my story and visualize a potential scene. Usually, I don’t have an exact idea of what will happen. I place my characters in the setting, visualize their first movements or words shared, and begin describing exactly how their story unfolds using the surrounding area.

My most successful visualization came when I was working on a short story called, “Alice Flows.” I took a basic storyline with me to a location in western Maryland, sat on a picnic bench with my tape recorder, and began visualizing the two characters interacting in the stream right in front of me. In less than an hour, I felt as if I had lived with them, witnessing intimately the painful process of accepting imminent death in the search for everlasting peace.

If you have a Smart Phone, you don’t even have to buy any extra equipment to do this. All you will need is a camera (still or video) and something to record your voice. Great audio recording apps are available for nearly all smart phones, and most phone cameras today can take incredible photos. All you need to do is find the location, visualize your characters, and whisper “Action” to let them take center stage in your story.

Donald Murray, journalist, educator, and writer who passed away recently, often mentioned in his lectures that writers are always writing, even when they are not pushing the pencil to the paper. I refer often to these five non-writing strategies when working with other writers in LifeStory writing; they will help you as well in strengthening your craft — and your stories — immediately.

Writing Strengthens the Soul: For the Present and the Future

I say it all the time: Your Story Matters, and for so many reasons.

Most of the time, the “Your Story Matters” phrase is something I tell people who want to write their story but are afraid to start. They might be afraid of judgment (more on this later about what assessment-driven writing is doing to the minds of our future generations), upsetting loved ones or family members, or no one caring about what they have to say.

None of these holds any weight of credibility. 1, you are not writing this for a grade; 2, you get to choose the audience (and sometimes we write just for ourselves at first); and 3, you never know who needs to read or hear your story.

Your story does matter, and if you are thinking about writing it down, I encourage you to begin immediately for no one but you: an audience of one. Send your self-censors and your inner-editors on a little vacation and just write. You can worry about who gets to read it later on.

There’s another reason why I tell people their story matters; it has nothing to do with publishing or a greater audience. Instead, it has everything to do with inner strength — not just for the present, but for the future as well.

I recently read a post by one of my favorite inspiring bloggers, Danielle LaPorte, who wrote about this very issue (you can read the entire piece here: “You Will Be Called On To Expand, And This Is Why We Practice“).

She writes:

When we’re believing in the fairness and the glory of human nature and the so-called Fates, we keep seeking, and meditating on reality, and praying for healing though nothing obvious ails us. . . .Because the day will most certainly come, as it does whether you are a whole-hearted Lover or in denial of Grace, that you will be struck down or ground down by life. It can come in tiny tearing heartbreaks five times a day, just walking through your neighbourhood. It could come in the name of tragedy that could only happen once in a lifetime. And you will need to withdraw the insights that you put into your heart’s escrow.

LaPorte is right, of course. Way back in ’88, I was renting a room in a farmhouse close to where I was teaching, and I was struggling in many ways. One rainy Sunday night, my roommates returned home from a weekend barn spiritual they had attended, and I was so empowered by their spiritual energy that I allowed them to share with me the power of Christianity and believing in a higher power.

For many months, I studied Jesus’ teachings as I read and re-read the letters, stories, and lessons shared in the New Testament. I had believed, all along, that the purpose of my struggles in 1988 was to lead me to read and study the bible so that I could be saved through Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice.

What I did not understand is that, by studying and practicing the lessons and the teachings, I was preparing myself for my father’s death in the spring of 1989.

When he passed away, I found great inner strength to be a support for my mother, to support others who were grieving, and to deliver the eulogy for our entire family. I exuded that strength at the viewings as well as at the funeral; I was called on to expand, as LaPorte puts it, and this is why I practiced.

The same is true with our writing and our creativity. We do not write and create simply to publish and enlighten or entertain; we do these things daily so that we may know who we are, so that we may strengthen our self-esteem, so that we may feel the confidence to face any situation we are given and expand at a moment’s notice.

I write every day to keep my soul and my confidence in shape for today; For I know that, soon enough, I will be called upon to put that knowledge into practice.

Discard your worries about judgment, upsetting others, or if anyone cares. Write and create every day for you. Strengthen your soul, even in the best of times. Build that cache of confidence and keep it well-stocked. You will need it, and when that moment comes, accept it with a firm foundation of inner strength and confidence in who you are.