But When You Don't Have a Hammer

When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. But what about when you don’t have a hammer? Then every nail becomes an unsolvable problem.

This morning on my ride to work, I realized my chain was loose. My unexperienced mechanical analysis pegged the issue as a loose screw. Arriving at work, where I unfortunately don’t have any screwdrivers, I assembled my tools: a push pin, an ID clip, my ID, a bobby pin, and a letter opener (I should really keep a multi-tool in my backpack).

You see, when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. But what if you don’t have a hammer, and you have dozens of nails to pound in? That’s when the real delight of creativity comes in: instead of waiting for a hammer to materialize from thin air, look around. Stop thinking that every problem just has one solution, and find something else that might work. You’ll be surprised how many objects can be repurposed in a pinch.


*the bike malfunction ended up being simple enough for me to fix with my bare hands (I know, I was relieved but also little disappointed). But it still inspired a blog, so the whole thing wasn’t a failure (more so because I didn’t get stranded on the bike path at 7 a.m.).

Creating in a Vacuum

Every person needs heroes in their field. Young basketball players think of Michael Jordan (or, as Curtis—who’s very wonderful—tells me, perhaps LeBron James). Painters remember Monet and Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Cooks perhaps think of [insert famous chef name here, as I’m not a budding culinary specialist, I don’t know any . . . ], ballerinas have role models, even businessmen look up to those who have been successful before them.

Most of us would probably agree that iron sharpens iron, and that two are better than one—but why? What’s so special about working with like-minded people or studying someone who’s been successful in the past?

Because it’s nearly impossible to create in a vacuum.

Imagine yourself as a sweaty farmhand (or, if you are a sweaty farmhand, just imagine yourself as yourself). One day, your foreman brings you to a new plot of land the farm has just purchased and tells you to build a fence. He walks you along the fence line, shows you where he’s marked the corners, and wishes you good luck.

Then, he leaves. You begin to plan, but suddenly everything crashes to a halt. You have no wood. No money. No way to contact him. No pickup truck to drive over to the main farm. All you have is your lunch pail and a shovel that you happened to bring along.

Seems like you’re going to have a pretty tough time building the fence.

Creating (or doing business, or a sport, or anything, really) is just like that. If you don’t have the tools and supplies to make something, it’s pretty tough to make it.

And if you can’t observe someone correctly using a technique, it’s pretty hard to get the technique right yourself. That’s why we send children to school, and engineers to the Colorado School of Mines (BEFORE we let them build bridges and buildings and stuff like that).

That’s why it’s so important to constantly be practicing, researching, learning. It’s why athletes spend hours a day in the gym with trainers, and why musicians practice from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. with instructors, and why writers should always be reading the old classics and the new ones.

If you’re always practicing and learning, you’ll find it easier to perform and speak. If you’re trying to create in a vacuum, you’ll find it hard to come up with anything to say.

*Related only in my mind: Curtis and I are in the middle of a big purchase, and it includes ELEVEN (yes, 11) vacuums.

18 Days: The Book (coming early 2020*)

Book titles about the past 18 days of radio silence on the blog:

The Winter that Froze the Internet

[Tour Book]
Secret Florida Road Signs: Don’t Waste the Sunshine

[Memoir—although yes, there is such a thing as being too young to write a memoir]
You Only Turn 24 Once

[Research based work]
A Detailed Scientific Examination of Why Car Doors Don’t Latch in Subzero Temperatures

[Historical Biography]
Celebrations of a Long Gone Sledding Connoisseur

Twice Stolen: The Chicago Car Thief Strikes Again

Chicago Winter Ice

* So sorry, 18 Days: The Book may actually not be released until early 2055. Check back then.

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.