Category Archives: Creative Process

Embrace the Box

“A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God” – Ray Bradbury

ArtistHow often have you heard, “We need to think outside the box?”

Seems like a lot of folk use that phrase or something similar (my favorite is, “The solution came from left field.”).

While I believe that every human being is a creative type, everyone thinks differently. My experience is that most linear thinking folk are more apt to use terms like “outside the box”.  There’s nothing wrong with that – it means they are willing to go outside their comfort zone and consider more abstract, perhaps even illogical solutions or ideas.

I’ve always been a non-linear thinker. One of the benefits of having ADD is that my mind tends to race ahead, see the big picture, and identify connections that maybe a linear thinker wouldn’t necessarily see right away. While it is a benefit, it comes with potential problems in communicating with my linear colleagues.

When I was younger I would often become frustrated while I stubbornly tried to make people see the distant, abstract connections, or explain a complex concept. Over time I learned to have patience and empathy: the linear thinking people were just as frustrated with me! And, Heaven forbid, maybe even thought I was a bit looney or weird.

That’s okay with me. I don’t mind being a little weird or abnormal.

Then I discovered a concept that changed everything.

There is no such thing as “out of the box”.

Human beings, no matter how creative, abstract, modern or innovative, are designed to create order. In fact, in his beautiful little book, The Courage to Create,  the noted psychologist, Rollo May, makes a strong case that it is the artist’s job to bring form to chaos.

This made me think deeply about the nature of art, about life, about the universe. The fact is that there is an order to everything – even when it is not readily apparent. In essence, everything has a box. Even if we’re pulling an idea out of the chaotic swirl of cosmic matter, that idea was born from some type of order.

While I may be making a mountain out of a mole hill here, I think it’s an important distinction. Most people are linear. For that reason, knowing that everything intrinsically has a boundary can actually make the creative process easier and less overwhelming.

Our job is to either expand or contract the box.  It is to recognize the current order – and then to change the form. Artists do this all the time. Ask five painters to look at a scene and we’ll typically get five very different interpretations.  Their perceptions help us all to expand the box.

Same thing rings true when five colleagues are sitting around a conference table looking at a problem. We’ll get five (or more) different solutions that expand the box.

I think the key to solving problems is to first embrace the box. See the existing form as a reality. Begin there, and then go to work expanding the box with the realization that only God can exist outside the box.

The Value of Plan B

plan-763855_1920The creative process is messy.

The journey you will take toward giving authentic expression to your creative voice is rarely a straight line. You may begin at Point A, completely miss Point B, and end up at point D. The road will be filled with potholes, pit stops and occasional smooth pavement. There will always be bumps.

One of the most influential people in my life is a man named Richard King. When I was in high school, and had just discovered the freedom that writing could bring, Richard encouraged me. It meant something coming from Richard because he had creative chops of his own.

A singer/songwriter with an amazing voice, Richard wrote songs for numerous country music stars during the 1970’s, including Mel Tillis and Roy Clark. Richard also appeared on stage in Las Vegas. It was a rocky road, though. As Richard would tell it, “I had terrible stage fright – it would take a lot of whiskey to give my performance courage.”

That path was unsustainable, so his creative expression took another form. Besides music, Richard also had a gift for designing and crafting very high end pieces of jewelry. Each original piece was a work of art – and he made his living making custom rings for many years in his Northern California studio.

The music industry is a tough business. Richard had the stuff to be a star – but it was messy and extracted a price he no longer wanted to pay as a performer. His Plan B, though, not only made for a nice living, but still fulfilled the creative expression his soul needed.

And he never gave up music. In fact, he had a small recording studio in his home. He even occasionally played local gigs for charity.

Richard always had – and still has – a certain star power, It just wasn’t on the road he originally set upon.

You see it in most creative types – a diversity of interests and talents. Jessica Simpson designs clothes. Ice-T is a rapper turned actor. Stephen King plays guitar in a band. NFL star Vernon Davis is also a gifted visual artist.

Sometimes Plan A and Plan B run side-by-side. Sometimes they merge. Sometimes Plan B becomes Plan A or Plan C.

The secret is to be open to new ideas, new thought, new action. Richard’s path was his own and chosen with conscious intent.  It was authentic, allowing him true expression.

There was tremendous value in his Plan B – and there will be value in yours. Plan B doesn’t mean forsaking a dream – it could mean writing novels instead of screenplays, or painting murals instead of portraits. It could also mean directing plays instead of playing the lead. Whatever it is, if chosen with integrity it is the right and true choice for you.

Be Bold

I was blessed at an early age to have received encouragement from some great teachers in and out of school. My English teachers in high school (Jack McNaughton, Mal Mackey, Ron Schmidt, Linda Spinelli) helped me to cultivate imagination and instilled in me a desire to seek freedom through putting words on paper.

Concurrently, a family friend, Richard King, would read my stuff and compare my work to Rod Serling. Richard was a professional songwriter with some serious chops, so I took him seriously – and was thrilled by the comparison.

I wanted to be the next Stephen King.

So I spent the next ten years writing bad horror. Short stories and a couple of novels. I collected rejection slips and shared complaints with writer friends about how editors worldwide needed to visit their local optometrists because they seriously lacked vision.

Then I began a long journey of writing ad copy, marketing communications, magazine articles, newspaper columns – business writing paid the bills. I also dabbled with different styles. During my late 20’s and 30’s I read a lot of Ernest Effing Hemingway, Jack Kerouac and William Gibson. My writing improved, but still wasn’t where I wanted it. Something was missing.

More years passed and, while in the process of learning about ADD, something clicked. I began writing differently. I went deeper into my soul. I actually thought what I was writing – whatever it was – was beginning to read differently.

I’d found my voice.

The first half of my writing life I spent imitating those writers I read and admired. In the tradition of master-apprentice I copied what they did, applied their techniques and styles, and created imitations of their work. When I finally let them go I discovered that hidden beneath their technique was a clear and persistent voice that belonged only to me.

It wasn’t conscious. It simply was.

The more I wrote, the more pronounced it became. Freedom was at-hand.

There is something bold and liberating about sliding into your authenticity as a writer or whatever kind of Creative Type you may be.  Just let it go and the flow will find you.

Let it go and Be Bold. No matter what, your authentic voice is what’s important. Look for it. Care for it. Give it free reign. There is nothing more satisfying.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to my teachers for giving me such freedom at an early age. They helped me to stretch and explore, and then guided me in helping me give my chaos form. That’s the essence of the creative process.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my teachers these past few weeks. Just want to give credit to Jack, Mal, Ron and Linda. They helped me set sail on a lifelong quest to give expression to my soul, and not be fearful of spilling blood on the page.

Let Freedom Ring

Rules, structure and ADHD go together about as well as champagne and castor oil. So it seems.

When rules and structure are imposed it can feel suffocating and frustrating, like we’re caught in a vice and the freedom is slowly being crushed from us, our essential life force dripping slowly into a pool on a cold concrete workshop floor.  Having ADHD, we often fight against rules and structure like we were engaged in a death-match. It can feel like our very existence is at stake.

A remedy is to turn to our art, whatever that may be. Whether it is words on paper, paint on canvas, or the soft click of knitting needles gliding smoothly through good Irish wool – we can seek refuge and hope to find our state of flow.

The irony, of course, is that a primary purpose of art is to dive into the swirl of chaos and bring it form. The difference is that there isn’t some external critic or authority imposing their brand of structure. It’s just you and your art, and the structure you choose to apply.

It’s your unique, authentic brand that’s important; as is your attempt to ride the timeless flow of the Positive River. You and your art. Your world, your rules. Enjoy your art.

It’s freedom. Let freedom ring.

Makers Make (and then revise)

When people ask me what I do, and then I tell them I’m a writer, it draws an interesting response from many.

“Wow…I’ve always wanted to write!”

Of course, my response is typically, “That’s terrific. Why don’t you write?”

“I don’t have time…I’m not that good…I don’t know what to write about…” You get the picture.

Well, writer’s write. That’s what makes someone a writer. They sit before a blank screen, fingers poised above the keyboard, and then fill the page.

Once the page is filled the job is just beginning. Writer’s write, and then re-write.

A good friend who writes sci-fi books told me once, “My first draft is always crap. The re-write is the attempt to clean up the crap.”

It’s true. We aren’t perfect. There was only one Mozart (who could hear and see the symphony in his mind and write the music from brain to hand, perfectly). Us mortals – and especially those of us blessed with ADD – must absolutely entertain one or more re-writes.

I actually enjoy the re-write process. The work takes shape. It’s like a master blacksmith who pounds with his heavy hammer, refining and shaping, refining and shaping, until he has his finished piece. It’s a process.

So…MAKE. And then revise. It’s the process and path every craftsman must take.

Makers Make

I was checking out Stanford University’s d. school page the other day. Very cool site focused on the integration of design and other areas of living. Stanford may be the academic leader in this conversion – I encourage you to check out their site.

As I was browsing there was a photo of a sign that hangs in their hall:

NOTHING IS A MISTAKE

THERE’S NO WIN

AND NO FAIL

THERE’S ONLY

MAKE

This is the  essence of creativity. All too often we get bogged down in self-doubt, self-editing, and self-destruction. We want things to be perfect when there is no perfect. There is just MAKE.

Like The Great One, Wayne Gretzky said, “The only guarantee is that you’ll miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Something like that…

The point is, do what you do. Don’t edit. Don’t erase. Don’t paint over. Just create.