11 February 2009 — Genius and the Creative Muse (4)

Over the past couple of years, author Elizabeth Gilbert has been something of a joke in our house. We read her book The Last American Man for book group, and neither Kris nor I were impressed. It was certainly well-written, but the subject was lame, and we felt as if Gilbert were writing a love letter rather than a biography.

We’ve had friends read Gilbert’s subsequent memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, and their reactions have mostly been ambivalent, as if they couldn’t understand the hype.

So, Kris and I are unimpressed.

Yesterday, however, Andy pointed to Gilbert’s talk at this year’s TED conference. (The TED talks are amazing. They’re like little nuggets of brainfood.) Her subject? Creative genius.

My opinion of Gilbert has changed. After viewing her presentation, I have new-found respect for her and her process. What she describes is similar to what I experience. I’m not saying that I’m a genius, but what glimpses of genius I may have often seem to come from somewhere outside myself. (I think of it as possessing a muse, but maybe that’s because I don’t really understand the word.)

Gilbert tells the story of a poet who, as a young woman, would feel poems coming at her from across the landscape. She would run to the house to grab pencil and a paper before the poem would pass her by. I experience something similar. I am not joking.

When people ask me where I get my ideas, I tell them the best ones come from mowing the lawn. It’s true. For some reason I cannot fathom, when I am mowing the lawn (or doing other yardwork), I come up with the most brilliant ideas. For a long time, I would lose these ideas. I wouldn’t remember them by the time I was finished with my work. Frustrated, I developed a system. Now I keep a pencil and a pad of paper near the door. If I’m working outside and the muse comes to me, I stop what I’m doing, and I go to my pad of paper to write it down. I capture these bits of genius.

Gilbert’s talk is brilliant — at least to me, as a writer. It captures some bit of writerliness, and for that I am grateful.

(On a sidenote: Kris and I watched Almost Famous the other night. I knew the plot going in, so I expected the film to be “about” rock bands. Sure, that’s a main theme. But I was impressed that this is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about what it’s like to be a writer. Capote? That’s a film about a writer, not about writing. Almost Famous is about writing, and I love it for that.)

Tags: Deep Thoughts · Introspection · Writing  → 4 Comments

1 January 2009 — In the Twilight (1)

When I was young, I wanted to be a poet. I wrote a lot of very bad poetry during my teenage years.

It’s been a long time since I made poetry a habit. Still, I generally jot a few lines every year, and then forget about them. Sometimes — like tonight — I’ll stumble upon something I’ve written and think, “Wow. That’s actually pretty good.”

The poem I found tonight was this untitled bit, which is dated 11 September 2001:

In the twilight
the colors bleed and fade —
what once was red, or blue, or green,
is now black. Or white.

The approaching darkness
casts long shadows, cloaking
all that once danced in light,
consuming warmth, producing fright.

I like this because it works on multiple levels. Superficially, it is evocative of dusk. Symbolically, it represents the tone of that time: the aura of approaching gloom.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just as sophomoric as all the other poetry I’ve ever written…

Tags: Personal History · Writing  → 1 Comment

3 December 2008 — In Which I Have No Taste (6)

There are things that everybody else loves but which, whether due to character flaw or discerning taste, I do not. I’m always baffled by this phenomenon.

Recently, for example, I decided that I’d waited long enough. After five years, I was ready to watch The Lord of the Rings films again. Surely they had improved with time and distance, right?

I was disappointed to find that they had not. The pacing was still glacial. The music was still omnipresent, as were the special effects. (”This is more cartoon than film,” I thought at one point.) I couldn’t even make it out of The Shire.

Then Kris decided that she wanted to watch the series over the Thanksgiving holiday. While I worked in my office, I could overhear the screeching Nazgul and thundering orcs and the omnipresent music. When she started the third film, The Return of the King, I sat down to watch with her. This had, after all, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2003.

Ugh.

I hated it. I’m trying not say “The Return of the King is awful” because I know that implies that I am some sort of universal arbiter of taste. But it’s hard. I really want to say it. I do not like this movie — not one bit.

And so there are things that everybody loves but which I do not.

The books of Barbara Kingsolver are another example: brightly-painted straw men (and straw women) dancing across a broken stage. Every time somebody proclaims Barbara Kingsolver as her favorite author, I want to shake this person and shout, “What on earth is wrong with you?” (I also want to hand her Proust, which is probably further evidence of my pathology.)

Other examples: House, Friends, beach volleyball, cream cheese, and blog entries that are simply lists of dozens (or hundreds) of “tips”. And, finally, the book that made me start this tirade: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

For the past five years, friends and total strangers, when they learn that I’m a writer, are inclined to gush, “Have you read Bird by Bird? It’s wonderful!”

No, I haven’t. But I’ve tried many times. I usually make it to the end of the introduction. I want to read the book — so many people I know think it’s wonderful! — but I’m tripped time and time again by the author’s twee turns of phrase, by her constant attempts to be cute and funny. With me, a little of this goes a long way, but a lot of it goes nowhere.

Today at 43folders, Merlin Mann wrote that real advice hurts. This is a brilliant salvo against a type of blog entry that is currently very popular, but which offers nothing to the world: the afore-mentioned lists of dozens (or hundreds) of “tips”. Mann writes:

In more instances than we want to admit, tips not only won’t (and can’t) help us to improve; they will actively get in the way of fundamental improvement by obscuring the advice we need with the advice that we enjoy. And, the advice that’s easy to take is so rarely the advice that could really make a difference.

This is something I’ve been wrestling with at Get Rich Slowly. For a long time, I too, like Mann, was a purveyor of tips. And I still believe there’s a place for tips. A limited place. More and more, though, I think that tips address the symptoms and not the disease. They lead to a belief that there are easy answers. But you know what? There aren’t any easy answers — at least not often.

Anyhow, Mann leads his article by praising Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Once again I thought to myself that I should give the book a try. So, once again, I sat down and read the introduction. And, once again, I hated it. Sample:

I believed, before I sold my first book, that publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem.

This did not happen for me.

Imagine that passage repeated for 21 pages and you have some idea of what it’s like to read the “introduction” to Bird by Bird. If you like that sort of thing — and obviously, many people do — I recommend the book to you. I’ll even loan you my copy. But for me, this stuff is hard to swallow. I don’t find it cute or funny or informative. I just find it annoying.

Is this a character flaw? Is it discerning taste? I don’t know. I tell myself that I’ll just suck it up and read the damn thing, but I don’t know if I will. At least it’s not Barbara Kingsolver.

Tags: Books · Rants and Raves · Writing  → 6 Comments

28 August 2008 — Building Great Sentences (6)

This is how geeky I am (as if you all needed another example).

For years, I’ve bemoaned the fact that I’ve been unable to find a good college-level grammar class to take. All of the college-level grammar classes around here are remedial. I don’t want a remedial grammar class. I want an advanced grammar class that really gets into the nuts and bolts of the stuff.

As you may know, I’m a huge fan of The Teaching Company. This company offers college-level courses via compact disc and DVD (and, now, audio download). They’re great. Robert Greenberg’s “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” is marvelous, and I recommend it to anyone. Well worth the $95 download.

As much as I love these courses, I try not to look at the catalog when it comes. I’m a frugal fellow, remember, and I don’t need to go out of my way to find reasons to spend money. Hell, I already have several courses from The Teaching Company that I haven’t finished auditing yet:

Today when I received the monthly Teaching Company e-mail solicitation, I dragged it to the trash, just like always. But as I did, something caught my eye: a course called “Building great sentences: Exploring the writer’s craft”.

Well.

As you can probably guess, there were mere microseconds between me noticing that and actually downloading the lectures. That’s right — I am so geeky that I would, without hesitation, pay $35 to download a 12-hour series of lectures on how to write sentences.

Now I’ve got to find an excuse to listen to this course. Anyone up for a trip to Boise and back? I’ll provide the wheels. And the listening material.

Tags: Geekiness · Rants and Raves · Writing  → 6 Comments

18 August 2008 — Improper Usage (9)

I have an editor. Each week one of my posts from Get Rich Slowly is reprinted at MSN Money’s personal finance blog, Smart Spending. I work with a woman named Karen Datko, whom I admire a great deal. She’s funny and helpful and full of advice.

Karen and I have a difference of opinion on commas, especially as they relate to quotations. I follow standard usage for dialogue, but I cannot bring myself to do so in a situation like this:

Kris Gates is always “right,” according to her husband.

That’s the correct usage, but it makes me tense. That comma does not belong inside the quotation marks. When I write, I always do the following:

Kris Gates is always “right”, according to her husband.

To me, this is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it’s also logical.

Unfortunately, Karen isn’t a fan of aesthetics and logic. She’s a fan of standard usage. “Won’t you please make an effort to fix your commas?” she asked me last spring. And I did for a while. But it’s difficult! I’ve been doing sensible commas for decades; it’s not a natural thing for me to “correct”. (Heh. See what I did there?)

Karen recently corrected another usage error that I consistently make. “‘Personal finance’ needs a hyphen when it’s a compound modifier,” she said.

She probably thought that was an innocuous statement, but to me it was a revelation. I’m not joking. I’ve been using hyphenated adjectival phrases (and adverbial phrases) a lot since starting to write full-time, but I’ve always just used my gut to tell me when to use a hyphen and when not to. As soon as Karen mentioned compound modifiers, the rule became clear!

Still, I’m not sure I can bring myself to write “personal-finance book.” I’ll probably write “personal finance book”. And Karen will weep.

Tags: Geekiness · Writing  → 9 Comments

26 May 2008 — Too Much Time Away (2)

Strange. I haven’t written anything since last Wednesday or Thursday. Now that it’s time to get some stuff ready for the morning, I find that I don’t have it in me. My writing muscles won’t flex. They’ve atrophied. It’s great to take time off, but I find that this is sometimes the result — I forget how to write.

The solution? I spend an hour or two “freewriting”, simply jotting whatever is on the top of my head. Like this. Most of what I produce during this time will be unusable, but that’s okay. The point is to get the writing muscles working again.

The real trouble tonight, however, is I’d really rather be watching a movie. Turns out we don’t own Raiders of the Lost Ark — which is what I’m craving — so I guess I’ll get back to work instead.

Tags: Introspection · Psychology · Writing  → 2 Comments

13 February 2008 — 180 Degrees (7)

It feels so good to finally break through a barrier. Or two.

The last week has been awful. I haven’t been able to write. I sit and stare at the computer screen, but nothing comes. “I’ve lost it,” I think. “I’m doomed.”

I try to find other things to occupy my time, but all I can think about is that I cannot write. I had 4-1/2 days during which nothing came. It was like pulling teeth to get even a basic weblog entry done.

“There’s a lot of fluff around here late,” one Get Rich Slowly commenter noted. No kidding. Believe me, I know it.

Yesterday afternoon, I could feel things changing. I had lunch with Michael Hampton, and the conversation jarred something loose. It removed whatever had been obstructing the writing process. I took the long way home from Monmouth, which also helped. I exchanged a bunch of e-mail with Lauren Muney. I went to bed early.

Today I went to work for the first time since noon on Friday. I expected to be making sales calls with David Gingerich, my replacement, but he had called in sick. I stayed in the office to answer phones, but it was slow. What I really did was write. And write. And write. And write.

I wrote four posts for Get Rich Slowly and four posts for Get Fit Slowly. In many cases, I took articles I had begun to piece together last week and rework them to final form. Before, I would look at these pieces and want to give up. I just couldn’t see how they were supposed to end up. Today it was easy. Today I could see how to get from point A to point B.

I also took my bike into the shop to get an overhaul. I’m ready to ride.

Now I’m sitting in my favorite chair listening to XM 81 (BPM - dance music), waiting for my sweetheart to come home. We’re going to Gino’s. I’m going to have clams.

And to think that two days ago nothing was going right…

Tags: Daily Life · Introspection · Writing  → 7 Comments

Yessir, this full-time writing stuff is going to be amazing.

On Sunday, I generated ten blog posts on various topics. (None of them for foldedspace, sadly.) Today, I produced 28 single-spaced pages for an e-book project. The mind boggles. (Of course, much of that material was refurbished from previous bits, but still…there was plenty of new stuff, too.)

When I’m able to work without interruption, I get a lot done.

Unfortunately, we have four cats. This may not seem like an issue on the surface, but it is. At any one time, there’s at least one (and sometimes two or three) cats who want my attention. They drove me nuts this afternoon!

Eventually I had to banish the beasts outside. For three hours they pawed at the window and gave me their most forlorn looks. I ignored them. I got stuff done. Then I let them in and they were up on the table, begging for attention. Poor things.

Tags: Cats · Daily Life · Writing  → 3 Comments

16 January 2008 — Finding the Future (11)

I’m at an interesting place in my life, a place it had never occurred to me I’d reach. My little personal finance blog has taken on a life of its own. It’s a business. It’s a brand. Sure, it’s a small business and a small brand, but that’s a start.

But what do I do next? For a long time, I’ve believed that a book was the next natural progression. But what sort of book? I have three discrete ideas kicking around in my head — which one do I pursue? And how do I find a publisher? (This morning on the drive to work, I found the seed for a fourth idea.)

The answers to these questions have become a little more clear during the past several weeks. I’ve had conversations with about a dozen very smart people, all of whom have opinions on this subject. Some believe a book is The Answer. Some believe a book is A Mistake. All of them are wildly supportive. Whom do I believe? How can I know which path is best?

Fortunately, I don’t have to decide just yet. I have time.

My favorite advice so far has come from the bold Penelope Trunk, who is a force of nature. “You’re fat, right?” she said. Penelope is not one to mince words. “The best thing you can do right now is get fit. If you get fit, you’ll gain confidence. If you gain confidence, and if you look good, you’ll be in a position to do whatever you want. You’ll have flexibility.”

I laughed at the boldness and simplicity of her suggestion.

“I’m not joking,” she said. And she wasn’t. “Don’t do a book. Get fit. Spend all your time working on your site and exercising. In the months it takes to do this, be thinking about what Get Rich Slowly can do for you. Brainstorm ideas. A book is not the way to go.”

Though I’m not convinced a book is a bad idea, I think Penelope’s other suggestions were fantastic. Some of them were mind-blowing, actually. Her vision for my site is even bigger than my own. Talking to her made me realize that perhaps my goals are too modest.

In any event, the next few weeks are going to be filled with a lot of soul-searching and introspection. If you see me deep in thought, it’s only because I’m trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life!

Trivia: I’ve written the word “exercise” (or some form of it) several times over the past few days. Every time I’ve misspelled it “excercise”. Where did that come from? I never used to do that.

Tags: Deep Thoughts · Introspection · Writing  → 11 Comments

7 November 2007 — The Snowflake Method (2)

The snowflake method for writing a novel seems needlessly complex. In general, I think elaborate mind-mapping systems for writing are counter-productive. When I write a story, I have a clear picture of who my characters are — I don’t need to write pages of notes about what they eat for breakfast. At the same time, however, the method fascinates me. While I think a novel might break it, perhaps I could use it for a short story.

Tags: Flotch · Writing  → 2 Comments