Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Creative Demon Zodiac!

Hello, and welcome to the Creative Demon Zodiac! The Creative Demon Zodiac consists of twelve signs that govern the mysterious forces that exist to torment artists. All creative people—not just writers—are subject to these forces. But these forces are polar in nature, offering both positive aspects as well as negative ones. Over the course of the next several weeks, I will reveal all twelve signs as they fall under the categories of Fear, Avoidance, Competition, and Get Realism.

Creative Demon Zodiac FAQ:
How can I determine my primary Demon Sign?
First, determine the date and time of your birth. Add those numbers together, then divide by pi. Then read through the list of twelve signs and decide which Demon is most familiar to you. That’s your demon sign. The number thing was just to reinforce basic math skills.

How can I determine my Demon Rising Sign?
Demon Rising Signs are mutable signs, which means that they often come and go. Some creatives will have several rising signs—that is, demons who like to pop in and derail your work for a while, then retreat.

What is your Demon Zodiac?
I like to think I’m a Stink-itarius with Success-icorn Rising.

I notice there’s no Creative Demon Zodiac entry on Wikipedia. Where can I read more?
I am the world’s leading and only authority on the Creative Demon Zodiac.

Okay! Now that we have THAT out of the way, let me get on to today’s section of the Water Demons (Drowning in Fear)

Stink-itarius: The Stink-itarious is scrupulous to a fault. He or she constantly feels that her work stinks; it can never, ever be good enough. This sign is usually extremely organized, perfectionistic, analytical, and creative. Unfortunately, Stink-itarii often kill their own ideas in infancy. They hide their work from the world, afraid that others will laugh at their attempts. They take first drafts and burn them in the fireplace, or rewrite the entire thing for twenty years and THEN burn them in the fireplace.
PROS: Stink-atarii believe in producing quality work.
CONS: Stink-atarii believe that they will never produce quality work, and don’t trust that the process will make their work better.
MOTTO: It can’t be that good if I did it.

Fraudo: The Fraudo believes that anyone who admires his or her work is mentally challenged. Fraudos believe that any success they have is unearned, and that any idea they have come up with must have been plagiarized. This sign is scrupulous, honest, interested in approval, and eager to create fresh, original work. But Fraudos have a difficult time enjoying success. The only reviews of their work that stick in their mind are negative ones.
PROS: Fraudos strive for originality.
CONS: Fraudos hold themselves back from exploring important works of others due to the fear that they will accidentally steal ideas.
MOTTO: Any positive review of my work was probably written by my mom.

Nobody Cares-icorn: The Nobody Cares-icorn is convinced that what he/ she has to say doesn’t matter. They think that their ideas are puny and unimportant. They think that being creative is self-indulgent, and that unless a work is going to be published/ shown in a gallery/ performed, it carries no weight. This sign is intelligent, often shows an interest in “highbrow” art forms, and interested in Big Ideas. The Nobody Cares-icorn is convinced that ordinary life is boring, and often secretly wishes that something horrible would happen to them (cancer, death of a loved one, alcoholism) so that they would have something Important to drive their creativity.
PROS: Nobody Cares-icorns care about universal/ important themes, like Love, Death, and Redemption.
CONS: Nobody Cares-icorns fail to see that the large is often reflected in the small. They miss the ideas that surround them everywhere, in their everyday lives.
MOTTO: I’m not tortured enough to be creative!

Next post will be on Avoidance Demons! 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Blank Page: A Prayer

A friend’s facebook post:
The tyranny of the blank page.

For her, and for all of us,
I pray for an uprising,
Grass-roots creative spirit
Bold enough to overthrow
The tyrant of emptiness.

After all, the Universe was empty
Just before the Big Bang.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Artist

I recently watched Bill Cunningham New York again. What a documentary. What a man. Bill Cunningham is a guru for how to live passionately. He has been documenting street fashion for decades, tootling around New York City on a classic Schwinn bicycle. The man is an octogenarian, and he goes out almost every night to photograph society parties for the New York Times. He loves beautiful, unusual clothes, and he places no negative judgment on how people present themselves…except the lack of judgment. If you’re wearing something bland, he will not be interested in you. Even if you’re a movie star. But if you’ve got brilliant candy-colored hair, or a bright striped blanket coat, or baggy pants that hang down past your butt, or a black plastic bag on your head, or if you’re a man in a kilt, or an old lady with purple hair and a fascinator—Bill Cunningham will want to photograph you. He won’t think you’re silly; he’ll think you’re wonderful. His art form is completely unique. I’m not even sure what it is. He says he isn’t a photographer. It’s more like his art is the ability to see beauty in thousands of different incarnations, and this art form is his driving passion. He doesn’t care about money. (He worked for the original Details Magazine for free, and earned a huge payout—which he never claimed—when it was purchased by Conde Nast.) He doesn’t care where he lives—his apartment has literally no furniture but a bed and filing cabinets filled with his photographs. He only cares about fashion.

Here is his slideshow and commentary (wonderful commentary!) about New York Fashion Week.

I can never live like Bill Cunningham, but I’m learning to take my own passion—writing—more seriously. Bill Cunningham fears nothing…nothing except being unable to work. He fears no failure. What does failure even mean when you don’t care about money or prestige? The work is the all.

There lies a real lesson on how to live. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Improvisational Writing

'Brand new tennis ball among eight used ones' photo (c) 2008, Horia Varlan - license:

I recently finished Alan Arkin’s memoir, and in it, he talks about an improv workshop he teaches. He always starts off telling the group not to be creative. They’re going to throw an imaginary ball around the group, but he doesn’t want any cutesy, attention-getting antics with the ball. He just wants people to throw react as quickly as they can. Throw the ball in two seconds. That’s it. Then they move on to other kinds of balls—beach ball, maybe, or volleyball. Then other stuff. Maybe a squirrel. By the end, the group has started reacting creatively, but without self-consciousness. In removing the attempts at creativity, the real creativity is unleashed.

When I read this passage, I thought about the opening of the Bible. In the beginning, god created heaven and earth. God is creative, and when God made humans, they were made in God’s image. Now, whether you take this story literally or not (I don’t), you see that that it serves to illustrate our creative nature. When we pursue our art, we live from the source of our most godlike nature—free of demons, full of creative energy. 

Soon, I’ll be leading a special interest group on block. Writers’ block, I guess. Which is something I don’t really believe in. The only thing that can block a writer is the writer herself and her Demons: Fear, Pride, Greed, or Envy. Remove those things, and you can’t help but be creative. It’s human nature.

Monday, February 13, 2012

You Aren't What You Write, Part 2

Jason Diamond wrote a piece called "The Barista's Curse" that was published in the New York Times last week. Poor Jason Diamond. He used to be a barista. (Boo!) Now he is a Real, Published Writer. (Hooray!) But he keeps running into people who knew him as a barista, and they are disappointed that he isn't making cappuccinos anymore. (Boo!) Stupid people! Don't you know that Jason Diamond has DREAMS?!

Jason Diamond wants everyone to know that he isn't a barista anymore. (He has been published in the Paris Review! Well, on their website.) Here is the crux of his challenge: "I’ve had to explain to a dozen former customers that, no, I was not a professional barista, that, in fact, I was freelance writing the entire time. True I had worked at Think Coffee, at Joe, at Jack’s in the West Village, at Kudo Beans (which became The Bean and then became a Starbucks) and at both of the Union Square Starbucks. In total, I held jobs at nine different Manhattan coffee shops and three Brooklyn ones. But I had bigger dreams all those afternoons I worked the steam wands and milk pitchers. I’m not just some guy who once poured coffee into your paper cup." 

Jason Diamond has two problems: 1. He doesn't understand that, by definition, he WAS a professional barista, and 2. He doesn't realize that NOBODY is "just some guy who once poured coffee into your paper cup." Jason Diamond wants us all to know that he was *different* and *better than* the other baristas because he had "bigger dreams" than the others. And those "bigger dreams" were dreams of being a Published Writer.  

But who cares? (Aside from Jason Diamond, I mean.) We are all always more than the pieces that make up our identity. To my mother, I will always be a little girl.  To my classmates in high school, I will always be a nerd. To people at the Red Bird Mall in Dallas, Texas, I'll always be someone who worked at Naturalizer Shoe Store. And all those things are reality--small pieces of reality.

Being a Published Author can mean a million things. But it doesn't make you any more important than a barista. It means you do something well enough to get published. Good for you. But it's just a job. Your dog doesn't care. People who love you will be happy for you, but they won't love you *more* because of it. Please remember that. It's the only way to keep the ego out of your writing. And your ego is your enemy--it holds the Demons of Fear and Pride in its grasp, and those things will eat your writing alive. Let go the ego. The writing is the writing. You are you. This--writing--is just something you are doing. You are also breathing. Which is more important? 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

You Aren't What You Write

You may be what you eat, but you aren’t what you write. People write something lousy and think, “I’m a crappy writer.” But writing something crappy doesn’t make you crap. It makes the writing crap. That’s all. There are excellent writers who produce crap sometimes. (I’m looking at you, Woody Allen.) And most writers create a LOT of crap that you never see.

There is a saying that you should never compare your first draft to someone else’s finished book, and that is very good advice. People assume that authors send in a manuscript, and then an editor moves around a few commas, and then the book gets published. Um, wrong! What happens is more like this: The author noodles around for a while. Then the author starts to write a draft. A million years later, the draft is finished. The author breathes a deep sigh of relief, and sends it off to an editor. The editor ignores the manuscript for months. The author starts to get antsy and begins annoying her friends by repeatedly asking their opinion on whether or not she should noodge the editor. Then, after finally reading it, the editor writes an editorial letter, which contains what we call the “praise sandwich.” That is two small nuggets of praise, “The characters are rich and complex and the setting is vibrant and eerie,” followed by the truth, ie, “This book has no plot.”

The author then cries and complains to her husband and spends months reworking the manuscript and cutting out her favorite bits and trying to come up with clever new ones. Then she sends it back to the editor. The editor writes another editorial letter and this time encloses a marked-up manuscript with “make funny” written next to all of the author’s favorite jokes.

So the author thrashes around for another few months, then it’s off to the editor. Then it’s wash, rinse, repeat until the work is finally done…or at least done enough to be published.

But is it the “writer” who needs improvement? No, it’s the work. This is the process. Michelangelo said that his sculptures were always there, he just had to cut away the rest of the marble to reveal them. This was not done quickly. In the same way, the nugget of our work is always present there. You just have to keep working to get down to it.

If you confuse your self and your work, you won’t want to do anything difficult, because revision by definition implies that “you” need improvement. You don’t.

In the words of my old boss, Dan Weiss, “They’re just books.” That’s all.