The Capriciousness of Creativity

Thursdays are my days for blog drafting … according to my new schedule … which fluctuates with the seasons, events, and moods in my life quite often. Yesterday, I was suffering a migraine and nausea and various other spring allergy garbage so I found myself drifting across the internet without purpose, rather than drafting this week’s blog article. It happens.

Today I am trying to rescue my very unproductive yesterday. First, I read an article on long novels in hopes that would inspire me to draft something inspiring, educational, or at the very least witty. Instead, I am writing about … not writing.

But in sifting through the drafts of my previous articles, I found one concept file that I started and didn’t finish (ironically) after watching this TED talk from author Elizabeth Gilbert on “Your Elusive Creative Genius”.

If you don’t have time to watch the video, she basically distinguishes the difference between “being” a genius (which puts a lot of pressure and stress on outstanding productivity in creative professions), and “having” a genius (which is not only the historical/etymological origin of the term, but also humanizes the creator). The word “genius” comes from Latin and originally referred to a guardian spirit or deity that watched over a person from birth … a sort of spirit guide that helps you out in moral dilemmas or situations that require intuitive wisdom, wit, or other creative problem solving methods. It is comparable to saying the creative person has a muse that inspires his or her work. The genius was not considered good or evil by nature, but was just present to inspire.

On a side note, the word “genie” has nothing to do with “genius” because “genie” is Arabic in origin. But it does come from the word “jinn” … which is also a spirit. Jinn are considered “trickster” spirits, so they are viewed as evil more often than not. But their base nature was originally considered neutral. And more interesting, the word “demon” comes from Greek “daimon” and Latin “daemon”, but also used to refer only to a guiding spirit or lesser god. In other words, “demon” did not carry any negative connotations until the Christian church started using it thus, because of their own belief that any spirit other than their own deity was evil. But I digress. 🙂

The concept here is that if creative inspiration comes to you from a factor outside of yourself, like a spirit, that creates an interesting understanding of the capriciousness of creative inspiration. Ask any writer, and you will be told the best ideas do not come to you while you are sitting at your keyboard plotting. Your best ideas will come to you when you are in the shower. Or when you are driving. Or when you are getting in bed, have the lights off, and really do not want to walk across the house in the dark to grab your notepad and pen. Your best ideas will come to you when you are as inconvenienced as possible for catching them and pinning them down into notes you can work with.

The same is true of other arts. I often see faces or creatures in rug patterns, tree shapes, rocks, and other items that make me think, “That would make an awesome sketch!” But as soon as I walk away, it’s gone. Thousands of sketch ideas have been lost from one wood pattern in my door on a daily basis. Why? Because who has a sketchpad and a pencil when they’re getting dressed or putting away laundry?

This is so common to most creatives, in fact, that it would almost be a comfort to know that there is some kind of spirit imp hanging over my shoulder, snickering at how clever he is with casting ideas out there at inappropriate times, and then jerking them back as soon as I blink. And in some cases, perhaps thinking like that can help creatives lessen their burden. If the creative ideas are external, rather than internal, what is the logical solution to jump-starting your creativity?

First of all, it gives the creative person a choice. I can choose to snatch that idea and do something with it, or I can choose to let it go and it may or may not come back to me, but I go into that choice knowing that it is my choice — knowing how capricious ideas come and go because that is their nature, so I accept that I can’t count on that idea being there for very long or coming back. I will put more effort into keeping a notepad by the bed or shower or in the car, so that I have a better chance of snatching that idea out of the air and capturing it for later use.

Second, it gives the creative person freedom. Knowing I don’t have to sit at the keyboard to brainstorm ideas means I can take a walk, go on an adventure, live my life as I normally would, but keep a writing notebook handy to jot down ideas as I go along. In fact, I’m more likely to have more ideas while doing other things, than while trying to be creative at my work space. My work space is primarily for organizing, developing, and producing those ideas … not giving birth to them.

Third, it eases the expectations we creatives have of ourselves by giving us space between what we do and who we are. If you are a creative person, you know how difficult this is because your mental health probably depends on being able to create. You might not know what to do with yourself if you can’t create. In this sense, perhaps creativity is a lot like being possessed of a little spirit, so that you and your desire to create are one. But if we cannot unplug from those expectations now and then, we burn out. And if other people expect us to be switched on all the time, they will be disappointed when one creative project succeeds, but the next fails. It’s as if we failed, but really it’s just that human beings can’t be switched on all the time. No profession or individual can do this and maintain good health. I often say I AM a writer because it’s such a part of me that I can’t NOT design new story ideas or characters in my head. But even I have moments when I have to put the writing aside to get other stuff done. In those moments, I need to be able to cage the spirit and cover it, or I won’t be able to function in day-to-day life. If you are a creative person, you are probably nodding along because you have lived this, too. You get it.

So, the next time your creative genius flies off and leaves you high and dry for ideas, maybe try to reconsider it as a blessing. It’s a chance to rest. It’s an opportunity to leave your desk jockeying position and do something else that will invite your muse to return under better circumstances. And it’s a chance to prepare your living space to work in-sync with his capricious nature.

My Muse
My muse doodles a lot. 🙂

Look at that! A blog article born from the lack of inspiration for writing today’s blog … 🙂 I think I will thank the genius sitting on my shoulder for rescuing me today and give him the weekend off from writing, so that I can come back on Monday with fresh energy and ideas.

Joys and Disappointments of Re-Reading

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Image Source: OpenClipart by bf5man

Last week I did a book review for 1984 — a book which I stated having already read four times. I read an article this morning that made me think a little more deeply about why some of us re-read some books and not others. Is there any benefit in reading something more than once? Spoilers aren’t the only disappointments that can go along with multiple readings. The answers to why someone would re-read a book probably vary as much as people and the books they choose to read. But I was curious, so jotted down some of my own reasoning.

Disappointments

Let’s start with the obvious disappointment — spoilers. The reason I don’t re-read most books (or re-watch most movies) is because I already know what’s going to happen. I can NOT know what’s going to happen. So, the element of surprise, the plot twist, the freshness of getting to know new characters, the shock of losing a character, the absolute immersion of that first read is forever lost after the initial curiosity has been explored and satisfied. It’s a wonder anyone purchases any book or film based on that alone. Checking them out at a library or renting a view from Netflix will do for most one-time stories.

Another category of disappointments might be more personal. Perhaps I outgrew a book I loved as a child. Perhaps my ideology changed. Perhaps my education or life experience turned me in a different direction. It’s hard to appreciate fairy tales or romances in which the prince and princess live “happy ever after” when facing divorce because “forever love” becomes as credible a concept as unicorn poop. A doctor might read about a fictional wound and be critical of the author’s lack of real medical knowledge. Or a scientist might point out a flaw in a sci-fi or fantasy setting. Or perhaps a white author’s attempt to portray a black character is handled in a way that the reader finds offensive. These little annoyances can often be forgiven during initial reads because we’re distracted by other stuff going on, or we were too young or inexperienced to know or care. But as we grow and change, details like that can get under the skin like a pebble trapped in a shoe.

The third kind of disappointments with re-reading can be more mundane, namely time and energy. If my time and energy are limited, then I have to make choices about what I read, how much I read at a time, and consider why I’m reading it so that I can prioritize. I used to spend my high school summers lying in the backyard with a stack of sci-fi library books because the only reading I could do during the school year was school related. Summer was for MY reading list, and aside from part-time jobs, I had all the time in the world to delve into imaginative worlds. Now, I can barely squeeze in 30 minutes before bed, and even that’s not a guarantee every night. Do I really want to spend my precious 30 minutes re-reading something I’ve already read, rather than exploring something new? And if I’m tired, can I stick with it if it’s not fresh?

Joys

In spite of the reasons for not bothering to read books a second time … I do. I think perhaps the main reason for this is because I grew up loving books as if they were best friends. I’m an only child and spent most of my childhood reading, writing, drawing, and making music to keep myself entertained without having to rely on other people. Later I added language and culture studies to my alone-time interests. I went to the library once a week and came home with — literally — armloads of books, some that that were new, others that I had already read multiple times. I handled them with care, never dog-earing a page, never writing in them, never letting them get wet, always returning them on time … so that they would be there when I wanted them again. I was a member of several book clubs in and out of school, and I looked forward each month to receiving my little cardboard box in the mail or ordering through the Scholastic catalog. Books were treats, fond memories, comforts always there for me, even when people were not. I kept some of those book club favourites, and looking through them now is like looking through a family photo album. I can remember how old I was, where I lived, and what my interests were during my first read. Growing up, it becomes harder to make time for old friends, but familiarity and comfort are probably my number one reasons for keeping old books and reading them more than once.

My second most prominent reason for re-reading is depth. This is what applies to re-reads like 1984. My first read was in high school, and it was assigned, and it was taught with a particular political and religious bias because of the school I attended. I appreciated this book because it was a good dystopian story, but admittedly, most of the details were memorized for a test or writing a book report. When I had to read it a second time under college direction, my personal circumstances had changed. I realized much of the first read went over my head. And my disposition in life was different by then for a number of reasons. It felt like I was reading a hidden layer underneath the obvious one. I liked that. I was seeing things that made me pause and re-think interpretations I’d been taught. I was seeing parallels to other books and historical or current events. The third time I read the book, I was the teacher, so I dug even deeper. And this most recent fourth read went even deeper still. Every time I read this book I see a new layer of details and intangible subject matter. Books that evoke that kind of response deserve to be called classics and should be read more than once.

But perhaps the best reason for re-reading a book is the most simple: fun. It doesn’t have to be a childhood favourite or a literary masterpiece. Sometimes if it was fun the first time, it can be fun again for the same reasons you found it entertaining in the first place. Really that is the ultimate reason why we read fiction in the first place — for entertainment. If the book does nothing more than that, it has still done its job of providing a pleasant activity for a short time. Fandoms are built upon this kind of devotional investments in fictional worlds and characters. And in non-fiction, inspirational, practical, or academic refreshing of knowledge is always beneficial. I am currently reading Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You, and I can already tell I will be re-reading that one many times over for the remainder of my life. It’s so relative to me, personally.

If my forever home could have a floor-to-ceiling, grand library to keep all the books that I ever loved, I’d probably never use any other room in the house, except to eat, sleep, and shower. Realistically, I know I’d never be able to re-read that many books. I’d be desperate for new material, so why I hoard old books is a mystery to me. But every room in my current house has at least one bookshelf filled with books that I have either re-read, or that I intend to “someday” re-read. Some I hang onto for reference. Others I hang onto for memories and pleasure. And when I move into my next home, though it will be much smaller, I know I will have a hard time parting with many of my favourite books due to lack of space. I can’t imagine not having books available for re-reading.

Character Interview: Shei, The Bard

So, here it is February and The Dragonling still has not been placed in the hands of beta readers yet. My apologies to those waiting on it. There were many “life” distractions in December and January that slowed me down, including a bout of bronchitis that morphed into THE VIRUS FROM HELL. I was sick for 8 weeks with a deep chest congestion that simply would not go away! All the while, we had visitors, tons of snow that had to be shoveled (which takes time away from writing when it’s 1-2 hours at a time and multiple times a day), holiday stuff, and then January hit the ground running in some sort of surreal alternate universe that I can’t even begin to understand or explain. Oh, and the brakes gave out on the car. So, that was a week in the shop with its own interruptions and delays.

Meanwhile, I was also trying to read through all four previous books looking for inconsistencies that needed correcting or plot threads that might have been accidentally dropped, and I didn’t finish the last one until just a couple of weeks ago. All I can say is … life happens. Focus is lost. Productivity goes down. In my opinion, even when production lags, quality should come first. So, rather than rushing to finish, I am still checking notes from the other books against this one to be sure they have as much credible consistency as I can muster. I am now looking at March for beta reads, April for final edits, and May for publication.

To make up for the delay, I thought I’d have a bit of fun with posting something character related. Social media question games have always been around, but lately they’ve been used as a diversion from all of the bad news. In looking up character interviews, I found an interesting list here (http://thewritepractice.com/proust-questionnaire/) from Marcel Proust. I was surprised to see these little parlor games have been around since the 1800’s!

So, one of my most “entertaining” characters is Shei, a light elf bard. I know he’s in the middle of a dreadful dilemma right now in The Dragonling, what with being possessed by K’tía’s ghost, receiving terrible news about his father, and being a wanted fugitive that a bunch of dragons want to roast because of his friendship with Trizryn, but let’s show him one of these human inventions called a computer and see how he might answer one of these questionnaires. And if you’re a writer having trouble developing a character with depth, try interviewing them like you would a real person. Test out their voice to see how they might answer.

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Image Source: Melody Daggerhart — my Skyrim game screenshot. I put Shei in my Skyrim game to do the Bard’s College quests. Here he’s decked out to find a flute in a necromancer’s cave. What fun for him, eh? 🙂 … (Not!)

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Not being chased by dead things. Or dragons. Or necromancers who conjure dead things and release trapped dragons.
What is your greatest fear?
Did I mention dead things? Well, except for Triz. But he’s only half-dead and doesn’t try to kill me. Mostly.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Distractability. Is that a word? Why is it showing up red in your spellcheck? Ooh, Spellcheck is showing up red, too. What? Oh. Questions. Right.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Disloyalty. There’s nothing worse than a traitor.
Which living person do you most admire?
Trizryn. Wait, does he qualify as living? Anyway, he’s been through a lot, so it’s hard for him to trust people. But I admire his courage for continuing to try.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Clothes. Did I just admit that? Clothes. I look great in them, don’t I? 😉
What is your current state of mind?
Excited to explore a new world. Sorry. Can’t say more than that. Spoilers.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Abstinence. Of anything.
On what occasion do you lie?
To protect my friends, I’ll do anything.
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
You’re joking, right?

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Another Skyrim capture of Shei and his housecarl camping in the snowy woods. Shei is a Thályn elf, or light elf, or forest elf. The forest elves in my novels are white as snow with blue undertones. They are named so because of their affinity to light environments and visible, elemental magic.

Which living person do you most despise?
Ilisram. ‘Nuff said.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
Non-pretentiousness. Ironic, coming from someone like me, yes? Well, there’s a difference between entertaining people or having to pull off disguises and trying to be tough all the time to impress other people.
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Sincerity. I suppose that’s the same as non-pretentiousness, isn’t it? (And you thought I was going to say barrels.) 😉
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
All of them. I’m a story-teller and lore master, so I’m sure I’ve used every word more than once.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Dare I admit this? … K’tía. But that will never happen, now will it.
When and where were you happiest?
Oh, definitely pre-dead things and dragons.
Which talent would you most like to have?
There’s a talent I lack? Clearly you’ve never seen me perform an illusory painting with my lute.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I guess I tend to make light of things at the wrong time sometimes. That might be good to curb before someone slaps me.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Writing songs that made K’tía smile and sing and dance.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
Someone that doesn’t die? … No! Nevermind. That’s a wish that’s bound to end up cursed. Hairbrush. Hairbrushes are good.

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Shei is a bard, and I am in love with this Skyrim mod home for him. It’s very similar to what I imagine his flat in Thálynessa having looked like, except it’s not made of wood or in a tree. Still, it’s very small and packed with things he would love. It’s called “The Rookery” by Elianora, if you happen to be a Skyrim fan with a bard who needs a good home.

Where would you most like to live?
I’d like to go home. To my ratty little flat in Thálynessa near the Twin Stags Tavern, mind you — not Brinnan. Though there’s nothing left of either of them now probably.
What is your most treasured possession?
My hair.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Having no friends or family to lean on when you’ve lost yourself.
What is your favorite occupation?
Making music. Telling stories. Reading. Painting. … Anything that can make people smile and forget their worries, however briefly.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Vanity. Charm! (shoves Trizryn away for reaching over the keyboard when he should be minding his own business)
What do you most value in your friends?
Loyalty. Sincerity. Same as before. I know who will never let me down. And I know I’d be crushed if they ever did.
Who are your favorite writers?
You mean among humans? Shakespeare. He wrote about magic and faeries. And he visited the fae court once. Aija doesn’t believe me, but he did. How else do you think he got those ideas for Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Who is your hero of fiction?
I have many heroes, not just one.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I am unique. Trust me.
Who are your heroes in real life?
My friends. They are courageous beyond measure, especially when they’re weak.
What are your favorite names?
I like mine just fine. It means “hill spirit” in Thályntól.
What is it that you most dislike?
Spider goo flooding your face is unpleasant. So are dead things.
What is your greatest regret?
Not being underground in Absin’navad when I was needed most. Not being able to help K’tía.
How would you like to die?
What kind of question is that? What is this obsession with death? How many times do I have to tell you I don’t like dead things!
What is your motto?
Well, I would say “Grab not, get not,” but that’s not really how I operate. It just sounds good and pithy. My motto would be … “Seize the Day … but only if it doesn’t involve dead things.”

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Bards are challenging characters to work with, I think. If they are supposed to be charming, you have to write for them in a manner that actually makes them charming. Their skills are subtle, so the plot needs to make use of them as entertainers, sweet talkers, spies, assassins, and more. And they are handy for providing information to other characters if any kind of lore is involved among their talents … as well as maybe playing to the tavern crowd to earn a free room when your crew is short on change.

Plotting Intentions

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One way to enjoy peace of mind: expressing appreciation for moments of joy, little pleasures, and what we already have. Gratitudes come in many shapes and sizes.

Usually at this time of year, I am making resolutions. This time, I decided to write down my intentions because two of the things I rely on to keep myself sane used that word. It made me pause to look up the difference. After all, words are my business.

A resolution is “a firm decision to do or not do something; the act of solving a problem, a dispute, or a contentious matter.” An intention is “an aim or a plan; the healing process of a wound.” On the surface they may seem the same, but do you see the difference? To me, the difference is forced victory versus goals and healing. The first follows whatever means is necessary to reach the end goal. The second plots goals every step of the way, gently, with foresight, and emphasizes the means even though the end goal is still a positive resolution. The first is not concerned with a healthy outcome, just a finished one. The second approach is more holistic, integrating both the peace of mind about the journey and the destination.

So, this year, I am setting my intentions on peace of mind. I intend to explore the many ways I can achieve peace of mind because 2016 was such a rough year. I was saying just the other day I know I’m not the only one who feels as if I was run over by a large truck multiple times, then dragged to the top of a cliff and thrown over, only to be dragged to the top and thrown over again … and again. So, this year, whatever challenges it presents, I need a stronger mind and body. I feel peace of mind will lead to both. It’s not a final or finite destination, but a path I want to journey.

This past weekend, I had a conversation with someone who was having trouble plotting, and it made me realize that this is relative for writers, as well. Many people tend to see the plot as the end of the story, but it’s actually ONLY the means. The end is the objective or goal. The plot is the path that gets your characters from the beginning to the end. And that can be done many ways. So, if you set your intentions on ending your story, you must start with an objective or goal for your characters to accomplish. Once you have your goal, THEN you can plot points on how to reach it. Just like in real life when you start a project, you have to know what you want in the end, and then buy the materials, break it down into steps, and work on it little by little.

This doesn’t mean the plans can’t change. Nor does it mean the ending will turn out the way you originally thought it should. I’m a big fan of Bob Ross, and I love how he repeatedly points out there are no mistakes in the joy of painting, only happy accidents. So in stories and in real life, when things don’t go according to plan, it pays to be flexible and consider detours as part of the journey. Again, this is where intention is different from resolution. Resolution is often very unforgiving. If we set out to lose weight, but then eat a whole pizza, we may feel like we have to start over because our clean slate was ruined. If we plot a course toward an end for our characters, but then we hit writer’s block, we may wish to trash the whole thing and doubt our abilities to write anything at all. However, if we intend to lose weight, we can plan for pizza and chart our successes and failures because having more successes than we did last year is a successful improvement toward our goal, too. If we intend to write that novel, but can’t figure out how to conquer plotting, we can change the plot to have the characters “fail” that particular quest and come up with something better because road maps can detour onto many off-roads and still reach a meaningful destination.

The reality is no one is perfect. Failure happens. It’s inevitable. Therefore, what’s important is that we learn and heal and get back up again … and again. One of my favourite Japanese proverbs is 「七転び八起き」/ “nana korobi ya oki”/ “fall down 7 times; get up 8.” This is the difference between resolution and intention. This is the difference between fretting over plots and setting goals.

I wish all of my readers, my fellow writers, my friends, my family, and anyone reading this today a happy and healthy 2017. May your goals be reachable by many paths. May you find many ways to enjoy peace of mind. May you forgive yourself, get back up, and try again, no matter how many times you fall.

 

My Favourite Chameleon

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Cover art for Diamond Dogs album by David Bowie

I should be doing my budget and several other dozen tasks this morning, including working on the next scene for Erys in the fifth book of the Elf Gate series. But I can’t. I woke to the news that one of my favourite chameleons has passed away. Someone else called him a “unicorn too cool for this universe”, and I really like that description, too. But I relate to him as a chameleon. No matter how you remember David Bowie, he was a unique and magical talent. So, I have to follow my heart today and write about him before I can move on to non-magical things … like budgets.

I can count on one hand the number of celebrities that I shed a tear for upon hearing that they were no longer with us in this world. The day that John Lennon was shot, I felt sick to my stomach. Everyone I knew probably knew I was a big fan of his, so the shock that ripped through me upon hearing of his murder, and the fact that I cried like a baby for the rest of the day, probably was no surprise to anyone. Lennon’s music had a profound impact on my life. The loss of Robin Williams was the second time I cried for a life that touched mine personally without ever having known the man on a personal level. I thought at first the news was a cruel hoax, but when I found out it was true, I felt heartbroken. Again, I was a huge fan, but this was a different kind of sadness — a deeper kind of sadness because I had spent my whole life dealing with depression and suicide issues. I had tried to take my own life the same way he succeeded at taking his. I couldn’t understand why someone would murder a musician, but I could understand why a comedian would hide his pain until he couldn’t take living any more. Sadly, I must now add David Bowie to my list of “heroes lost”. And this surprises even me.

I am not what most people would consider to be a David Bowie fan. And yet I guess I am because his loss hurts. I was never truly dedicated to his music, but as I look back, I see now that he was like some kind of milestone marker for me. (Please click on the links to enjoy the memories I’ve been sifting through today.)

Though I was a small child at the time, I can remember seeing David Bowie sing on TV with Bing Crosby in a Christmas special. The song they sang — a blend of “Little Drummer Boy and Peace on Earth” — is now a holiday classic I still listen to every year from CD.

Space Oddity” is probably the first David Bowie song I remember hearing and knowing, “This is David Bowie.” But it is the Diamond Dogs LP that made me pay attention to the singer more than the songs. The older sister of one of my school friends played it during a visit, and I was mesmerized by that freakish cover art. I remember thinking something like, “Wow, here’s a guy who’s not afraid to be himself … or anything else that strikes his fancy.”

Maybe it’s because I also became a chameleon, and I could easily look to him as one of the first people I was aware of who fluidly and successfully reinvented his appearance over and over. Whether in costume or fashion, he wore his art and owned it. And I can appreciate artists who make their appearance and persona part of their performance, especially those who don’t fear androgyny. When I lived in Japan and came across complaints from westerners on the Internet about J-rock artists dressing in such outlandish costumes, or men dressing like women, David Bowie was among the names I pointed out in western culture for having made “glam rock” a popular thing, and Ziggy Stardust being the perfect example how all-encompassing a show or performance could be when presenting fantasy-element entertainment or using music to tell stories. (i.e. “Rock operas” anyone?)

Maybe it’s because when when he sang about “changes” or being “under pressure” the lyrics hit a little too close to home for me. Stuff was happening in my personal life that made me listen to such songs over and over and over again … because the music was deep, powerful, and relatable.

Or maybe it’s because I’ve always been a dedicated fan of the fantasy genre and was among the millions hooked on the portal tale about traveling to another realm and meeting a goblin king. The first time I saw a commercial for the “upcoming” movie Labyrinth advertised, I immediately wanted to see it. It was my kind of movie.

Or maybe it’s just his cheeky sense of humour that shows up in songs like “I’m Afraid of Americans” with Trent Reznor , and clips like this from Extras with Ricky Gervais. … Maybe it’s all of the above and more.

One thing I know for sure. The world has lost a versatile, unique talent the likes of which were never seen before. Fortunately for us, David Bowie’s influence lives on through the magic of his arts … just like stardust.

My Fake December Vacation: a Great Way to Start the New Year

I took a bit of a vacation from social media in December. I hadn’t planned to do it. It just sort of happened when I found myself writing in the mornings, but then blowing off the afternoons after only one other chore and then gaming … or crafting … or colouring … or sitting outside at a bonfire to watch the snow … anything that emphasizes fun over productivity. Okay, I might have had to work a little for the bonfire.  But that’s okay. I love snow, so I still had fun and it was worth it. Sometimes it’s just necessary to step back and reclaim some perspective.

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I could have sworn I just dusted off those chairs and table so I could walk around them.

I had a marvelous time unplugging, even if it wasn’t an all-or-nothing kind of thing. I still got up at 6:00 every morning to write. And I wrote so much that the first draft of Elf Gate book #5 is now about 2/3 done. I found a new method of organizing my writing, so the workflow is much better, and one night my muse held me hostage to make me finish plotting out the rest of the series. No lie. I was trying to sleep, but every 10-15 minutes I would get an idea and sit up to grab my phone and jot notes in Evernote so I wouldn’t forget them come morning. But I ended doing that ALL NIGHT! I didn’t get any sleep, but I practically outlined the entire rest of the series in one night. I’ve never done anything like that before, so though my head felt like a sponge the next morning, I still felt pretty amazed.

But then I would stop writing after my 3-hour morning block and dress in my work-out skivvies to go shovel snow, come in for breakfast and a hot shower, and then go right back to writing until lunch. After lunch, I’d pick one “grown-up task” to do. (shopping, laundry, clean house, etc.) But then I’d spend the rest of the day intentionally picking activities I had not been able to do in a long time.

I bought myself a colouring book and broke out my old art journal and pencils. I finally got around to knitting a “Jayne Cobb Cunning Hat” for myself. (Yes, I like the Firefly series. But I like what was said about Jayne’s hat in the show even more: “A man walks down the street in that hat, and people know he’s not afraid of anything.” Truth.)

42CandleModel
My most cunning snow-shoveling hat. 🙂

I finished an Oblivion mod that I haven’t worked on since 2011, according to my notes. I was converting the Cheydinhal player home into a Morrowind-style home that I called “Ashlander Estate”.

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Ashlander Estate downstairs: it’s an Oblivion mod that turns the Cheydinhal player house into something more reminiscent of Morrowind.

 

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Ashlander Estate: the alchemy lab. I had to put the old alchemy equipment in there to compare it to the new stuff. 😉

And then I actually played Oblivion, which I had not done in ages. I was worried at first that upgrading to Windows 10 had screwed up my game because it kept crashing and textures were awful and wouldn’t save. I finally got disgusted enough that I was ready to uninstall and reinstall the game. But in doing so, I got an error message about needing to insert the Oblivion disk. I thought, “Wtf? The disk is already in there.” But then I checked, and it was the original Oblivion disk. 😄 … I had installed the Game of the Year edition with the add-ons. (Derpy moment for moi having to take out one Oblivion disk for the other.) Worked like a charm after that! (Note to self: the computer can tell the difference between the two Oblivion disks, even if I can’t.)

I watched old movies, I read some books, I crafted myself a day-planner and reorganized my computer somewhat after updating to Windows 10 (which then also required some work on games that no longer worked correctly, but so it goes with software updates *sigh*).

The irony is that in looking back over my rebellion against having a “productive” December, I was actually quite productive! There’s a lot of things I needed to do that I didn’t get done, but being able to feed my mind the kinds of activities that breed creativity (as opposed to just droning through the day doing legal work, other paper work, social obligations, house work, etc.) felt like I was taking a vacation, even though I wasn’t. Like the massive snowfall of recent, it was something that I needed in order to feel healthy again — to feel like myself again.

I still had to deal with the depression that comes with missing loved ones I couldn’t be with during the holidays. And I still had to cope with the anxiety of crap like this, where I caught the dog eating the cat food; and the cat dumped my hair band in the dog’s water and then played with it, spilling the water everywhere. (Why in the world did I sign on for this circus?!) But between the snow and the “fake” vacation days, I survived the holiday season.

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Tsukimori learned how to tip the water bowl. And, yes, that is my hair “pretty” in the water. And, yes, the dog is eating the cat’s food. My simple little “Bad Cat” scolding is sounding more like “AAAAAHHHHHGGGG!” these days.

My semi-unplugged, creative half-days gave me a sense of grounding and stability during a difficult time of the year for me without the guilt of feeling like I wasn’t doing anything productive. My first draft is nearly done with probably 75% of it being accomplished in a matter of a few weeks, even though I’d been working on it since I sent the previous book out to beta readers. But perhaps the most productive activity of all was taking place under the surface; sometimes time spent “just being” is time spent healing wounds that get no attention while I’m running around multitasking. Now that the holidays are behind me, I’m ready to get back to work again. 🙂

Have you ever tried to trick yourself into thinking you’re vacationing when you’re not? How did it go? I might try a month of half-days again next December. Or possibly this summer. ;p

 

Basic Truths for Learning Languages and Creative Writing

Tracking progress ...
My Evernote tracking of my progress … and mistakes … which I usually notice after-the-fact. (sigh) It’s difficult to find intermediate level Japanese practice pages and lessons because “intermediate” means different things depending on what people previously studied vs. how much they retained. But these two bold, simple truths of learning how to master the skills I want are really all I needed to remember.

Today after finishing my Japanese reviews, I recorded my progress in my Evernote mini-journal, then attempted to track down some practice possibilities for working with subordinate clauses. Most of my review so far is basic review, which is very necessary after being away from language learning just long enough to forget most of what I previously knew. It is slowly, but surely, coming back to me — some more slowly than others. But subordinate clauses were one of the last things I remember trying to master before leaving Japan. As a result, it’s the one item I’ve reviewed so far that isn’t coming back so easily. I remember studying it and understanding it, but now my brain is answering my efforts with mush: “Nope! Not gonna happen.”

During my quest for good practice lessons with subordinate clauses, I came across a website that had this to say about it: “Good Japanese starts with mindlessly imitating good Japanese.” And “Input always comes before output.” (And my apologies for not grabbing the URL of the website. If it’s yours, or someone recognizes it, I will be happy to update and post the address link here.)

I paused, gave it some thought, and transferred those quotes to my journal, then took a screenshot so I could share what I’d learned. I didn’t get the practice exercises I was after, but I think I found something more valuable. Why are these principles such basic truths of learning, and why is it essential that they be understood for both learners of languages and creative writing (… and many other disciplines)?

Creative writing first …

How do people learn how to write? They usually come to writing because of an interest in reading and other media forms of storytelling (film, TV, graphic novels, video games, etc.). But no one learns how to write before they learn to read. To even learn how to shape an alphabet letter, one must first learn to recognize it somewhere else for what it is … and with its sound. Then the new reader must learn how to string those sounds and symbols together to decipher codes that represents familiar objects. It helps to learn reading and writing simultaneously, of course. But you don’t know what a “B” looks like until someone first shows you a “B” and says “Trace it … copy it … now write it on your own.”

You have to be familiar with the basic parts of a story from reading other people’s stories before you can write your own stories. And the more that you learn about literary analysis, the more command you will have of your creative writing process. This is not a chicken and egg scenario. Input must always come before output. Good creative writing starts with mindlessly imitating good creative writing. You cannot write without inspiration, so if you are suffering writer’s block, step away from your output long enough to look for input. This is a repetitive process in creative writing. Breathe in. Breathe out. Inspire. Aspire. If you want output, focus on input.

Read a book you’ve been wanting to read. Watch a move you’ve been wanting to watch. Look up historical, folklore, whatever that offers some real data or mysterious legends to give details and texture to your work. Take a walk, play a game, play music, do art … there are dozens of ways you can coax inspiration back into the process when it slips away. It doesn’t have to be relative to your story. You can always make it relative. But you cannot force a good story to come together if nothing is feeding your imagination.

Languages …

Language is vital to creative writing. You can see the connections in the example above. You have to know a language in order to use the code to convey a message. There is no way to convey an understandable message using a code you don’t know. Input before output. Good language learning starts with mindlessly imitating good language examples. The answer to my problem regarding lack of practice pages for subordinate clauses was staring me in the face. Instead of looking for pre-printed, special practice pages to translate, all I need is some good sentences to copy.

Tomorrow when I sit down to do Japanese grammar subordinate clauses, I will look for reading material, instead. I will look for subordinate clauses written by masters who knows how to use the language well. And then I will mindlessly copy what they wrote. And I will copy, copy, copy until I have disciplined my mind to default to their good examples. Only then can I own the skill and use it on my own.

Two additional notes …

  1. “Mindlessly” … This does not mean, “Turn off your mind.” You do need to pay attention to what you’re doing in order to learn from it. But a student learning a new craft or skill needs to be empty enough to receive new knowledge before he can do anything with it. I’m reminded of the Buddhist koan about a teacup needing to be emptied before more tea can be poured into it. The mind needs to be humble and open, rather than resisting and complaining and being impatient with the methods required to learn the skill if there is to be any new inspiration.
  2. Copying is not the same thing as stealing, although it can be. Copying someone else’s novel and slapping new names on the characters, then calling them your own borders on copyright infringement. But copying in order to learn is a necessary step in the writing process. How can you tell the difference? The serious learner will put major effort into branching away from copying “learning material” to create his own works as soon as possible. “Start copying what you love. Copy, copy, copy, copy. At the end of the copy, you will find yourself.” (Yohji Yamamoto, fashion designer) What, then, do you think Pablo Picasso meant when he said, “Good artists copy; great artists steal”? It means you must copy to learn good skills, but you will never be able to do more than duplicate a work until you can take what you learned away with you and transform it into something unique.