A blog for artists who struggle with Demons like Procrastination, Self-Recrimination, Doubt, Fear, The Desire to Win Awards, Nothing Is Good Enough, Maybe I'm Hungry, and I'll Work After I Watch This Cute Kitty Video.
Here is a story quoted from Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit: “George Harrison once decided, as a game, to write a song based on the first book he saw at his mother’s house. Picking one up at random, he opened it and saw the phrase ‘gently weeps.’” I think we all know what happened next. (Above, watch George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Jeff Lyne, and Phil Collins perform “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”)
People, if it is good enough for the Beatles, it is good enough for me. And you. So let’s play.
Pick up a book—any book. Flip it open. The first phrase you see—that’s yours. Whatever your art form, your job is to come up with a piece of art that represents or includes those words. Then post up your creations in the comments section, if you dare!
Like almost everyone on the planet earth, I watched the youtube video of Charlotte and Jonathan last week, and witnessed them blowing minds and melting heartson Britain’s Got Talent. If you haven’t watched it yet, spend a life-affirming six minutes and do it now.
Jonathan and Charlotte’s tale is a beautiful story about the art of friendship, and the kind of friends an artist needs. Jonathan admitted that he wouldn’t have had the confidence to perform if it weren’t for Charlotte. And when arguably the most powerful man in show business, Satan (played here with convincing relish by Simon Cowell), suggested that Jonathan would have more success in the contest if he went on as a solo act, Jonathan refused to dump his friend. They were in it together.
As artists, it is vital that we seek out people who support our craft, and encourage our best efforts. That’s what Jonathan has in Charlotte—someone who knows the depth of his talent, and believes in him. Here are five tips for finding your people:
1. 1. Learn to recognize the difference between helpful criticism and insults. An insult is vague, and offers no opportunity for improvement (Example: “That piece didn’t move me.”) What’s helpful about that? On the other hand, real criticism is invaluable. It’s specific, and gives plenty of room for new execution. (Example: “This image was unclear to me. Can you make it clearer?") Don’t spend time with people who only offer insults. Being in an artist tribe is a give and take. If they aren’t going to give anything helpful, then move on.
2. 2. Dump people who are consistently negative. When I announced that I was going to quit my editorial job and become a full-time writer, one of my friends asked, “So—what does that mean? That you’re just a housewife now?” That friend Did Not Get It. He didn’t believe that I could be successful, and ultimately I had to accept that there wasn’t any room for him in my life.
3. 3. Aim high! Many years ago, I attended a workshop led by award-winning YA novelist Ellen Wittlinger. I knew she lived close to me, and we had a few friends in common. So, when I was introduced to her, I asked if she knew of any writing groups in the area. She said that (gasp!) there was room in her writing group full of hot-shot award winning authors (she didn’t put it that way), and would I like to join? I thought, “I’m not worthy!” but I said, “Yes!” I’ve been with this group almost six years now, and have published three hardcover novels with their help. If you’re looking for artist friends, don’t just pick any old artist. Seek out people whose work you admire.
4. 4. Don’t compare. Art is service to the world, and it must be approached with humility. The worst art is created out of the ego—“I want to be famous!” Leave that stuff to the Kardashians. Good art is about communication--articulating an idea or an emotion to others in the hope that they will understand, identify, think, be changed, be moved, experience catharsis, etc. What you are trying to communicate is unique, and so is your art. If you are going to be friends with artists, you must be willing to teach them and to learn from them. But if you compare your art, you are doomed.
5. 5. Celebrate the success of your friends! There will be moments when your career isn’t thriving—and the career of your artist friend is. As I write this, I’m sitting across the table from Jo Knowles, who has been Starring It Up with her latest novel, See You At Harry’s. Am I envious? Yes! But I’m also thrilled for her. Remember that—like Jonathan and Charlotte—we’re all in this together. There is enough success out there for all of us, and we will all reach it in different ways, at different times. But, as creative guru Julia Cameron says in her brilliant book, The Artist’s Way, artists are like water, and water rises collectively. The success of your friend is your success, too, especially if you have been encouraging them with their art.
Are your friends helping you, or holding you back? Look for the Jonathans and Charlottes in your life. Those are the friends that will serve you forever.
Hello, again! It’s Creative Demon Zodiac Time! This week, we take on the Final Three of our signs: the “Realism” quadrant. Those born under these Demons are pressured to “Get Real” and “Get a Life.” Oh, Demons! You’re so practical.
Paycheckarion: Those born under the Paycheckarion sign are very concerned with Making a Living. Whenever they create Art, their demon loves to ask, “How will you earn money from that?” Then it looks at the yarn doll/ flower bouquet/ poem/ painting/ whatever and laughs smugly. For this sign, it all comes down to whether or not they can be shown the money. If no money is shown, better to spend their days as a drudge and passive fan of Dancing with the Stars than to waste time creating something that has zero objective monetary value. They sometimes experience excruciating whiplash when they convince themselves that their novel will be the next Hunger Games, only to despair when it is never even published.
PROS: Paycheckarii always have food to eat and a roof over their heads.
CONS: Paycheckarii are afraid to simply have fun with their work. They can’t see that the work has value in itself. Personal value.
MOTTO: “Show me the money!”
Selfishius: The Demons that rule the Selfishii love to tell them that making art is selfish. “There are starving people in the world!” is the message that tortures the Selfishii. “There are people who are forced to work hard labor—and there you are, making a mini-dinosaur out of polymer clay! Over-privileged and SELFISH!! You should be ashamed!” Those born under this Demon Sign are convinced that art is a bogus pastime, and that they would be better off doing something useful for humanity, like dentistry. They fear that—because they enjoy their work—that means that they are actually horrible people, unworthy to draw breath.
PROS: Selfishii are aware that the world is an often unfair, unjust place, and they want to be sure that the work they do doesn’t feed into iniquity.
CONS: Selfishii don’t realize that art feeds a hunger of the soul, and that—at its best—it is service, not self-service.
MOTTO: “Better to work for a cigarette manufacturer than to knit all day.”
Good-Enoughicorn: Those born under the Good-Enoughicorn tend to be cursed with facility. That is, they do a good enough job on the first time around that their work sells. They often earn a paycheck from their art. But the fact that their work is “good enough” keeps them from pushing themselves to the next level. “You’re earning a living,” their Demons whisper. “That’s the point, isn’t it? You don’t have time to make everything perfect.”
PROS: Good-Enoughicorns have talent, and enough drive to do good work.
CONS: Good-Enoughicorns have to demand criticism in order to take their work from good to great.
In the coming weeks, look for predictions for each sign! See what the future of your sign holds…and more!
We all love to believe that we live in a just world, a place where effort is rewarded. Certainly, most rich people seem to believe this. They’re always spewing advice like, “Just follow your dreams!” and “I worked hard to get where I am—you just need to work hard, too!”
Okay, fine. But here’s the deal: some people have dreams like, “I want to have the world’s most awesome collection of Star Trek memorabilia!” And some people work hard at things like defusing roadside bombs in Afghanistan. Those people may have vast reserves of knowledge, big dreams, and a crazy work ethic. But they aren’t going to become “successful,” because in our society, “successful” means rich. If you want to hear the awesomest TED talk ever on this subject, follow this link to hear Alain de Botton's thoughts.
But—what the heck? Who says that money equals success? I know a bunch of rich people who are complete jerkboxes. Are they successful people? They think so. But not me. And I don’t think the Creative Universe thinks they’re so successful, either. Here are my Five Steps to Creative Success:
1.1. Write down all of your ideas about what a “successful” person has. Personally, my demons like it when I believe that successful people have a shelf full of awards, loads of money, and have their books made into movies.
2. 2.Burn the list. (Or, if there is no safe place to burn them, or you aren’t old enough to use matches by yourself, or maybe you just don’t have any matches around, or whatever, just rip it up.)
3. 3. Come up with a new list of things a successful person has. Things like: Friends, or even just one good friend. Loving family. Happy moments. Respect. Integrity. A creative mind. A good heart. Appreciation for beauty.
4.4.Realize you already have those things.Then express gratitude for them. Thank you, Creative Universe, for my beautiful husband and daughter, the ahweesomays, and my brilliant job, which allows me to spend time on a couch on a sunny day writing up lists like this one.
5. 5. Get back to your life. Now don’t you feel better?
Recently, when I was reading Twyla Tharp’s fabulous book, The Creative Habit, I stumbled across this line: “…you don’t have a good idea until you combine two little ideas.” And then I realized something: I already knew that! Following is from a talk I gave a few years ago, reproduced with permission from myself:
“Several years ago, I heard Sid Fleishman talk at the New England Society of Children’s Book Authors and Illustrators conference. He talked about how you don’t need an idea to write a book. You need two ideas. He didn’t put it this way, but what he was saying was that, basically, you need a character idea, and then you need an inciting incident idea. Okay, let’s say that we have an accident-prone girl as our main character. That doesn’t get us anywhere until we add an inciting incident—how about ‘falls in love with a vampire.’
My series, Accidentally Fabulous, started because an editor friend of mine took me out to lunch and said, “I want you to write a series based on those funny stories you tell about being in middle school.” And I said, “Funny stories?” I always thought that all of my stories about middle school were gut-wrenching and sad. But she said, “Yeah, like that time you dressed up as fungus.” It was true, I did in fact dress up as fungus once, for National Science Day. And then my best friend told me that the guy I had a crush on was, quote, “staring at me all through chapel.” And when I got home and told my mom that a boy had been staring at me all through chapel, she said, “Don’t you think it might be because you dyed your hair green and are wearing a fungus costume?” And I didn’t speak to her for the rest of the night. But this didn’t really seem like enough of a concept to hang an entire series on. But at least I had the first half of the idea—the character. It was sort of me, so she is a scholarship kid at the ritziest school in Houston, Texas. She has a good sense of humor and makes some questionable fashion choices. But that’s not enough for a book or a series, either. So I had to think of the inciting incident—she makes friends with one of the Queen Bees at the school, and enemies with an even more powerful Queen Bee, and generally upsets the Bee power dynamic. Shenanigans ensue, including getting tricked into dressing up as an amoeba (it’s fiction, after all) for a National Science Day that doesn’t exist. Voila.”
So there you have it. The secret to having a novel idea is to have two ideas: Character, and Problem. Once you have those two things, your novel will write itself.*
*Note: Your novel will totally not write itself. Get to work!
Welcome back to the Creative Demon Zodiac! Today we'll be discussing those living under the Success Demon signs. This group is the Air group--elusive but important as oxygen to these signs, Success rules their creative minds. So let's get to it!
Competitius: Competitii believe in meritocracy. That is, they believe that the best work is always rewarded, and that if they are really “good” at their art, they will be given accolades, awards, and a big heaping pile of money to roll around in. They are constantly bothered by the idea that other people are more successful than they are. Especially friends. Competitii find it difficult to see movies (if they make movies), read books (if they write books), go to galleries (if they are artists), or watch someone else play the banjo (if banjo players) without thinking, “He/ she is so talented, I want to kill myself!” OR, “He/ she isn’t as good as I am! What the heck? Why is he/ she such a rich and famous banjo player???”
PROS: Competitii believe that good work will bring rewards, and are willing to work hard to receive those rewards.
CONS: Any perception that they aren’t “measuring up” makes the competitii want to throw in the towel.
MOTTO: “If you ain’t winning, you’re losing.”
Shortfallicorn: Shortfallicorns are held back the idea that someone else has already done their idea, and done it better. They believe that they shouldn’t be allowed to create art that tackles subjects which others have already covered, such as but not limited to: death, love, redemption, friendship, cooking, pets, God, and the idea that artists are haunted by demons that prevent them from creating art. “Great artists steal,” is not in their belief system. They are terrified of comparisons because they only want to do work that is the “best.”
PROS: Shortfallicorns are ambitious, and their ideas are Big.
CONS: When the gap between what they had in their mind (ideal) and what they actually created feels too large, they fall into the Pit of Despair.
MOTTO: “Has anyone—living or dead—ever had this thought or feeling before? Yes? Oh, forget it, then.”
Feedbackius: Feedbackius is always ready to hear criticism of his/ her work—but only if it is bad. If he or she gets ten reviews—nine good from reputable sources and one bad one from an anonymous jerk on the internet—the Feedbackius will only remember the one bad review. The soundtrack in feedbackius’s mind is like the famous piece of music “dueling banjos.” Only one of the banjos is not playing. Bad Banjo is turned waaaay up, drowning out Feedbackius’s train of thought, and inhibiting his/ her efforts. No review—not even “This is the best creation ever! Signed, The Lord God”—is ever good enough.
PROS: Feedbackii can take criticism. Maybe too well.
CONS: Feedbackii sometimes get so caught up in addressing other people’s concerns that they lose the thread of what they originally intended. They don’t trust themselves to evaluate the quality of their own work.
MOTTO: “I haven’t googled myself for a whole five minutes!”