Why Repetition?

A lot of life is about repetition. We wake up in the morning. Do some sort of workout. Eat. Get ready for work. Go to work. Daily grind, daily grind, finish some projects, eat lunch, daily grind, get off work. Make dinner. Eat dinner. Do dishes. Do a few small things. Go to bed.

Wake up in the morning. Do some sort of workout . . .

You get the point, probably because you do some iteration of it. Over time, we work ourselves into ruts. We eat this for breakfast—because it's what we always eat. We go food shopping at this time—because it's when we always go. We wear this dress to weddings, walk that route to school, listen to this music in the shower—because it's how we've been doing it for years

Repetition makes some things better—if you write every day, little by little, you'll become a more clear, effective writer. If you paint every day, you'll be quicker, sharper, cleaner. If you chop wood, you'll get stronger. If you give IVs, you'll be faster. If you cook, your food will taste better (unless you always burn it or use bad recipes. But that's a different topic for a different day).

Repetition makes some things worse—if you fight with your husband (wife, brother, parent, neighbor) every day, you'll get better at fighting (and conversely, worse at agreeing, and relationships, and being friends in general). If you follow the same mind-numbing routine every day, it's easy to lose sight of the small beauties and tiny moments that make the humdrum magnificent.

There's a two-fold point: 

1) Make sure you're repeating the right things. Choose the good things (creating beauty, loving, being kind) and scrap the bad (picking fights, disrespecting, being malicious). In the long run, when your character ruts run deep, you'll be glad you did. So will everyone else. 

2) Remember why you're doing what you're doing. If you're creating (or any verb) every day, it's easy to become disenchanted with your craft. But when the going gets tough, remember why you began in the first place. Everyone has different reasons, but many artists share at least one:

Because I love it, and I must create . . .

Home is Where You . . .

We've all heard myriad "home" sayings . . .

Home is where the heart is
Home is not a place, it's a feeling
Home is where our story begins
Home is where the anchor drops
Home is where my bunch of crazies are (my personal favorite)
Home is where the horse is
and etc. etc. etc.

Every saying came from somewhere. Someone had an epiphany and wrote it down or made a picture or sang a song. Then they sold it, gave it to someone, or just started saying it all the time. You know what happens next. It's how creating works.

You realize something that's inexplicably true for human nature, and you find out how to express it, and you tell other people, and they realize it's true too. Then the message spreads.

When you're thinking about how and what to create, remember two things:

1) Create with the truth in mind, because that's what people are looking for. 
Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (saw Him, proclaimed Him)

2) Create with human nature in mind, because people want to personally relate.
The sun will come out tomorrow, you can bet your bottom dollar. (optimism, hope)

Create often by these guidelines, because even if you don't become famous for every single (song you sing, picture you paint, word you write) thing, practice makes better, and better is better. And who knows, maybe something you create will catch on.

How to Receive Critique

Everyone comes in contact with critiques and criticisms at some point in life. When you're under critique, it's good to remember a few things:

1) What you think about my work does not define me. I don't have to build my character house on the foundation of your opinions.

2) My style isn't wrong just because it's not how you would have done it. Compare Shakespeare to Dr. Suess—surely one wouldn't have liked the other's style, yet each is a master in his own right.

3) A little bit goes a long way. Don't dwell on the negative criticisms you receive, or you'll see them as truth. Don't just listen to the people who constantly sing your praise, or you'll earn an inflated ego and an inability to see your own mistakes. Hear criticism, evaluate it, and let it go. The past is the past, and you don't owe it anything.

4) You always have something to learn. In the vein of a humble and teachable spirit, listen carefully for the lesson in every critique. It could help your art, your style, or just your ability to critique someone else well.

5) Graciousness is king. It's hard to smile and say thank you when you hear something negative about your work—but the people who are willing to tell you the negative things deserve commendation for their honesty. And even though you may not want to hear how your work is missing the mark, it may help in the long run. No matter if it's off base, unfair, or poorly delivered, say thank you. In anything from a sticky to an explosive situation, it builds relational equity. And we all need more of that.

And, most of all, remember Who you do your work for, and what He thinks of you.

A Small Brown Bird

This morning I saw a dozen sparrows chipping through the ice of a frozen puddle in the parking lot. Each one persistently pecked and suddenly when one broke through the ice, they all did. They did small birdlike things with the water—drank, bathed, refreshed—and hopped around merrily.

Few things look as cheery as a sparrow. He hops around, tilting his head left and right, leaning forward to peck the ground, hopping more, and flitting a yard at a time. The staccato precision of his movements and the sparkle in his beady black eye signal mischievous intent, and his mottled brown feathers, though not vivid, are beautiful.

Civilla D. Martin was also fascinated by sparrows. Born in 1866, she was a schoolteacher. She likely spent her days surrounded by children who were keen on awe and wonder—and you'd imagine that's where she noticed the sparrow, but it wasn't.

In the spring of 1905, Civilla and her husband, Walter, were in New York. They became close friends with a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle—true saints of God. The wife was 20 years bedridden, the husband an incurable cripple who traveled to work in a wheelchair. Yet, though their griefs should have been many, they lived happy Christian lives, bringing inspiration and comfort to everyone they met. One day, Walter asked the Doolittles for the secret of their bright hope. Mrs. Doolittle had a simple response:

His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Walter and Civilla, gripped by her simple expression of boundless faith, wrote a song. It drew from Mrs. Doolittle's original inspiration, Matthew 10:29–31.

Conviction well expressed carries art a long way. More than a hundred years later, a hymn inspired by a bedridden woman and a small brown bird is still around—and still rings absolutely true.

* See the whole story of His Eye is On the Sparrow.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He: 
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, 
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear, 
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see; 
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me; 
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise, 
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free; 
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

 

Artistry—And The B & W Photo Challenge

Still reading On Writing Well, and of course, loving it—but then, how could anyone not?

To dispel some rumors about writers, some excerpts:

  • If your job is to write every day, you learn to do it like any other job.
  • Professional writers are solitary drudges who seldom see other writers.
  • "Do you put symbolism in your writing?" "Not if I can help it," I replied. I have an unbroken record of missing the deeper meaning in any story, play or movie, and as for dance and mime, I have never had any idea of what is being conveyed.
  • It had never occurred to me that writing could be easy.
  • Professional writers rewrite their sentences over and over and then rewrite what they have rewritten.
  • Clear thinkers are clear writers.
  • The clear writer is someone who is clearheaded enough to see fuzz for what it is: fuzz.

My uncle challenged me to the black and white challenge, a social media inspired fad to take a black and white picture that describes your life every day for a week. There are only two rules: no people, and no explanation. I spent a surprising amount of time coming up with a good picture to define every day, then took every shot until I got the one I wanted, then messed with the settings so it looked exactly how I thought it should.

It's funny how a lot of artistic expression is exactly the same—you think about what you want to do, you do it (a first time, a second time . . . a twentieth time), and when it finally looks (says, sounds, etc.) how (what) you want it to after way too much time, you release it to the public. The public (as it were) thinks you just snapped a picture running past, scribbled down the sentence on a napkin, or real quick wrote and recorded that song before breakfast this morning.

But it's not exactly like that.

Producing clear content takes work, contemplation, and a lot of editing. But the outcome is worth it, because the artist who can clearly and simply communicate an idea is the artist who is mastering his craft.

PS. My 7 black and white pictures . . .

 Day 1, Sunday. Rest (and a TOASTY warm office).

Day 1, Sunday. Rest (and a TOASTY warm office).

 Day 4, Wednesday. Responsibility (and a LOBSTER bag from Ikea).

Day 4, Wednesday. Responsibility (and a LOBSTER bag from Ikea).

 Day 2, Monday. Home (and a BLUE throw rug).

Day 2, Monday. Home (and a BLUE throw rug).

 Day 5, Thursday. Productivity (and YELLOW LEMON salt and pepper shakers and COFFEE).

Day 5, Thursday. Productivity (and YELLOW LEMON salt and pepper shakers and COFFEE).

 Day 3, Tuesday. Love (and YELLOW SUNFLOWERS).

Day 3, Tuesday. Love (and YELLOW SUNFLOWERS).

 Day 6, Friday. Celebrating Jesus (with RED and SPARKLY ornaments).

Day 6, Friday. Celebrating Jesus (with RED and SPARKLY ornaments).

 Day 7, Saturday. Curtis (he's very wonderful). I realize I broke the rule, but how could I post about my life without crediting such an integral part of it?

Day 7, Saturday. Curtis (he's very wonderful). I realize I broke the rule, but how could I post about my life without crediting such an integral part of it?

 

 

The Five Step Creative Process

Today I had a new, very exciting idea for another new project (in addition to The Cup—Sequel, coming Dec. 2017). It'll take a while to accomplish, and a fair amount of work, but it's a delightful prospect.

Ideas go through several stages of development. It takes 5 major steps (I think) to parent an idea to completion.

1. The desire to create. Most (if not all) good ideas start with the inner urge (or urgency) to make something. That sets the ball rolling.

2. The combination of elements. Eventually you'll come up with something (unless you have writers block, in which case you should just throw in the towel and go look at the stars) (just kidding). The rough idea will take more intentional thought, as you develop the elements of the story, the characters, and the rough plot (or colors, or notes, or shots, etc).

3. Collaboration. This is the most crucial and intimidating step. Find a group of trusted friends, a sampling of both creative and pragmatic people who can look at an idea from more than one angle. Share carefully, and keep your hope and passion safe. An idea that gets edited and re-shaped can survive, but badgered hope and passion wilt far too quickly, sometimes irreparably. Listen to ideas and edits, take them to heart, and remember that few world-changing projects were completed in isolation. 

4. Start the project. Keep going. Finish a rough draft. Edit.

5. Repeat. Do steps 3 and 4 as many times as it takes to make a foolproof, waterproof, childproof project that you're proud to hang your name on.

Learn to think, to form ideas, to take edits well, to finish what you start, and to discern the value of ideas, both your own and another's. Making things alone brings delight—doing it in community is priceless.

It may seem like a long process that's too hard to track from start to finish—but you'll never learn it until you start.

prime time

Everything has a prime time: As seen on TV ads, rush hour radio, busy times for grocery stores, education, the list goes on. Anything that involves humans and their specific wants, needs, desires, and habits will have a prime time.

Education is best carried out in the morning, while the brain is freshly fed and rested, and the sun is still breathing energy into the world.

People buy stuff they saw on TV commercials in the middle of the night because somehow, what you see when you have insomnia sticks in your brain.

Rush hour radio plays music only—because if they can snag you during rush hour, when you're bringing your daughter to ballet on Saturday morning, you'll still be tuned in to that station and you'll hear the ads and campaigns.

Grocery stores staff more employees for certain hours, because they know that people will stop in on their way home from work, or come after dinner.

We're creatures of habit—we figure out what works for us, and do it. And, since the world has millions of people, what works for me likely works for someone else too. In the marketing world, companies can (and should) leverage that knowledge to their benefit, to work with your subconscious and convince you to buy (or drive or listen to or watch) something.

In the marketing world, it's like constantly trying to solve an equation and hoping the variables stay the same for long enough to figure it out. It's like solving a puzzle.

In the writing (creative) world, it's the same method, but you're only trying to figure it out for one person: yourself.

Every writer (creative) has his or her own prime time—some wake up long before dawn, to catch all the early morning word-brilliance. Others write after everyone else has gone to bed, in the peaceful stillness of a resting house. Still others find mid-morning to be the key, or treasure a post-lunch surge of creative energy.

Invariably, every writer (or creative) who you ask will have an opinion about what works best for them. The challenge of this knowledge is taking action. If you know you write your best poetry at 6 a.m., wake up and write it. If your brain kicks into story mode right after lunch, reserve that block of time strictly for crafting tales. If moonlight helps your mind compose sentences, save some mental energy for nighttime.

It's worth it to try different times until you learn what your prime time is, because 30 minutes of prime time writing (or creating) is worth 120 minutes of pulling teeth creativity after your brain is done for the day.

How to Write Real People

No one wants to spend their time reading characters that aren't believable. We have enough people who can't hold our interest in real life—writing them into your stories is a disservice to a faithful audience. Making characters three dimensional takes planning and consideration, and even if you're not careful, they can slide back into flat-dialogue-speaking-feelingless stick figures.

So how do you write real characters into existence?

#) Study people. You'll understand how to make the "fake" thing if you have complete knowledge of the real thing. Watch people interact, watch them be alone. Study their mannerisms, their habits, their hobbies. And ask questions. Understanding the why behind the what always helps to write more whats.

#) Make friends. If only for the sake of your writing, make friends with your characters, even the villains. In real life, you're honest with your friends, and you see their flaws. Do it in your writing, so you can give them believable flaws (nobody really likes sheer perfection) and lovable foibles.

#) Let them go. One of the delightful things about creating characters is that once you've given them life and personality, they'll start making their own decisions. When they do that, don't try to force them back into the mold you've created for them. Let them do their own thing, and when they suffer for bad decisions, don't try to patch it up for them right away. Let them be real people, who mess up and get mustard on their clothes and sing off-key.

#) Practice. I include it in every list because it's really the most important thing to do in writing. Stop reading this and go write up some real people.

We like to read us about people who remind us of ourselves—if you can master creating them, you'll be miles ahead of all competition.

How I Beat Writers Block

Classic writers block takes two forms: 

  1. Getting up to a certain point then not being able to continue. You've written long and hard, and suddenly, at the end of the sentence, you can't think of what comes next. It doesn't matter how hard you try, the villain won't pick up the gun and the heroine stays home in her pajamas. After hours of staring at the screen, you decide maybe you'd make a good chef (writing is for pale bookworms and nervous journalists with big glasses, after all), so you buy a cookbook from Amazon and start googling french cooking terms. 
     
  2. Nothing to say. You've sat down to write, and you've written forty-five first sentences—and you don't like any of them. None of them catch on, each one more flaccid than the last, and every time you come up with something maybe even a little good, the burst of inspiration dies out like a shooting star landing in the ocean. Dead. Completely. Sunken to the dark seaweed-y depths to live with bottom dwellers and pale fish with large eyes. You get it.

I don't know of any diehard methods to beat writers block, but I can tell you what I do: Write. About writers block. I write about how I despise it, how it makes me feel worthless and miserable, how it robs me of all inspiration and love for writing that usually comes so naturally. I write about how frustrating it is to want to say something and not be able to, like the boy who wants to ask the pretty girl to dance but he just... can't... get... the... words... out... there... Pretty soon, I've written a paragraph. If I'm feeling particularly spiteful (which is rare—I may have ditzy spells, but I'm not vindictive by nature), I'll have a page. Suddenly (while my brain was learning french and my fingers were flying with wrathful vengeance against something so small and obnoxious), the heroine has put on her super-suit, the villain is holding up a bank, and the shooting star is resurrected in blazing glory.

It may not work for everyone—but it's better than staring at the screen in doleful misery. 

Maybe it will work for you.

Nuance

Nuance gives interactions depth. The change of tone, the raised eyebrow, the subtle shift in posture—all of them indicate attitude and feeling. It's what makes story interesting, movies gripping, and real life easier to interpret. Without nuance, face to face interactions lack a certain emotion that we depend on to understand what's really going on. Even stranger to stranger interaction has subtle nuance, whether discomfort, disinterest, or delight.

Nuance differs from person to person, but some things are universal. Do you look up to the sun with your eyes closed when you go outside? Are you constantly picking at things with your fingers? Do you lean in when you're listening, cross your arms when you're upset, yawn when you're bored? Subtleties help us process interactions—without them we can't tell what the other person is thinking, unless they come straight out and say it. Was he leaning out because he wasn't listening? Why didn't she nod? What is all the yawning about?

In the same way, writing nuance into your story clues your readers into what's really going on, and triggers the imagination to help tell the story and fill in the tiny missing pieces. Without nuance tips, we won't know the tone of the story.

How do you write nuance into a story?

#) Understand what nuance is. You can't write it unless you understand it. Fortunately, it's an easy thing to learn. Eighty-five percent of social interactions that you witness are full of nuance—and once you start looking for it, it's everywhere.

#) Read for it. Find popular writers (both current and classic) and read their work. Do they use nuance well? Poorly? At all? 

#) Practice. This is the dead horse that I'll flog forever, when it comes to writing. The only way to get better is to practice, even when you don't feel like it, even when you have nothing to say. Look at the objects on your desk and write a story about them having a conversation. If your desk is empty use your shoes. If you're not wearing shoes, write it about the wall and the paint. If you write in a gazebo, maybe you're in a public park and there will be people walking by... You get the picture.

Nuance is invaluable to writers. Perfect the art.