Writing is about communication. Communication is about expression…and entertainment. Even when communication is merely about the transfer of information it is still about entertainment. Human beings are complex and deep thinking creatures who need to be intellectually stimulated. That is why as a writer you should use various techniques throughout your work to stimulate the mind. You should add seasoning to your dishes to give them flavor. One of these techniques is to add a little mystery to your creation. Because as a species, we love mysteries, riddles, crossword puzzles and episodes of “Lost”. The only thing we love more than solving mysteries is finding mysteries to solve.
So how do you add a little mystery to your story that is not a mystery? How do you add a little drama to your story that is not a drama? You use foreshadowing.
A shadow precedes you and announces your arrival. Similarly, the literary device of foreshadowing announces events before they happen. Sometimes right away, sometimes much later in the story. It drops hints of things to come. It is in effect teasing the reader. Why tease your readers? Because they want to fulfill that human need for stimulation. They want to solve the mystery, and to solve a mystery you need clues. That is what foreshadowing provides: Clues. Every bit of information an episode of foreshadowing provides brings them closer to finding the answer. They want to test their intellectual prowess and arrive at the answer before others do. As a writer, you want to keep the reader hooked and coming back for more, or better yet, not able to put your writing down in the first place.
Foreshadowing can come as a statement made by a character, it can be imagery, or it can be an entire scene that portends things to come.
Though everybody may like to have their curiosity piqued by a mystery, not everybody likes to be brutally teased. To use food seasoning again as analogy, not everyone likes the same amount of spice on their food. Too much foreshadowing may leave your story vague, ambiguous, and cluttered with seemingly meaningless information that only serves to confuse. Too little and you may as well be reading the back of a carton of milk for entertainment.
Therefore, there is a range involving the different types of foreshadowing that can be either explicit or implicit, direct or subtle. There is a form of foreshadowing that appeals to all palates.
Shakespeare was excellent at using foreshadowing that was straightforward, but nonetheless engaging. The title character in Macbeth states, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes,” which is not very subtle, but we are still quoting that line to this day. Entire books and movies have been titled after it. Similarly, in Julius Caesar the soothsayer tells Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March!” Again, not very subtle, but memorable. Direct foreshadowing like this can be made even more interesting by wrapping it in layers of poetry. In The Old Testament the prophet Nathan plainly declares to King David, “Because you have sinned and have offended the Lord your God, the sword shall never leave your house.” Nathan straightforward tells David that from now on you will have a whole lot of family problems, but uses poetic imagery to do so.
To get the most out of foreshadowing, however, one should employ the full power of mystery. When a scene is subtle enough that it leaves you scratching your head, but then gives you that “ah-ha” or “light bulb” moment later on…that is magic. The Bible has plenty of these moments as well. After scourging Jesus, the centurions go to mock him by wrapping him in a purple robe and crowning him with thorns. Little do they know they are foreshadowing the eventual crowning glory of Jesus.
Take foreshadowing even deeper and the imagery and prophetic utterances become open to interpretation and even debate…which is itself entertaining. Well, stimulating in any case. The Book of Revelation is an entire work of foreshadowing that boggles the mind. In the Lord of the Flies, a pig’s head is impaled on a stick which subsequently becomes covered with flies, leaving to discussion just what is implied. The very title of that literary classic foreshadows what lies within its pages.
There is no question you should add flavor to your writing. If you want to entertain, stimulate, or just plain tease your readers, spice your creation with foreshadowing. The only question is: How spicy do you like it?
The Sacred Boundary
Of all the tools in the artist’s toolbox, this may be one of the most important. The price is steep, requiring selfishness, and sacrifice, but the payout is the contract you make with yourself as a creator to own your creative space. Creative space is not just a place to work, but a time, a reserved energy, and a willingness to cut off connections (temporarily) from anything draining your juice. Yes, this includes Facebook. Please don’t shoot the messenger.
The sacred boundary is what protects you and your work from energetic drain and infringement. It’s the time, space, respect you pay to you and your own efforts. It’s the ticket price of entering the show.
The frustrated artists who come to my workshops say, “I could do more writing/ painting/art if only I had: fill in the blank.”
A workspace; spare time; a job that didn’t drain the life out of me; a room with a locking door; two hours away from my kids a week; a husband who could cook his own dinner; thirty minutes in the morning; a shorter commute to my day job; money.
Often when money is used as an answer to what stops someone from being creative, it’s because they can’t see a solution to the other needs and believe money is the solution. Sometimes it is, but most of the time the answer is within grasp, just unwilling to commit.
Often times, in fact most times, the answer is the difficult task of saying “no” to other people and their needs. Yep. That’s the ticket price. No.
It’s hard. I won’t lie. The day you tell your family “I’m not coming to Thanksgiving anymore because it falls during Nanowrimo, the only month of the year when I’m at peak productivity.” Bitter feelings and fights may occur. It may even break down the paradigm of how some family dynamics work, and you’ll have to be okay with that.
I even offered solutions to have them come to me so I wouldn’t lose three days of travel and productivity, I could stay home, write and cook and still make my deadline and see the family unit. There are solutions if you look for them. I staked the edges of the boundary, and held the ground. Am I saying my work is more important to me than my family is? A passive aggressive person might say yes, they might say I need to sacrifice every holiday, event, spare moment to be with my family – but there are many times throughout the year other concessions may be made for family time. And there are ways within November that my family and I can participate if the effort is made from both sides. I’m a pretty good cook, and happy to host.
The point of Sacred Boundary is you are choosing a side, and in that choosing, you are also saying to those people on the other side whom you’ve used as your excuse not to be productive:
“I’m not using you as my excuse to be creatively frustrated anymore.”
That seems harsh. It won’t make you popular. But isn’t that essentially what you’ve been doing? Putting off your creative work… and secretly blaming them for your failure to complete a novel, painting, poem, etc.?
You don’t have to feel like a failure if someone else stopped you from being your truest most creative self, right? It’s not your fault then, right?
Stop blaming them for your failure to commit to your work. It might be hard up front, they may take it personal, just like they’d take it personal if you told them the reason you’re unhappy is because you use them to block yourself. But sacred boundary requires the effort—and in doing so, you’ll see eventual adjustments occur. New dynamics will emerge, possibly even healthier ones, and they will begin to make efforts on their side to respect the sacred space. **Or, they will remove themselves from you completely (more on this later).
When you as an artist say, “This closet needs all the Christmas stuff moved to the garage or a storage unit, it’s going to be my new workspace.” Or “Don’t interrupt me between 7AM and 8AM unless you’re bleeding and need stitches.” Or “On Tuesday and Thursday nights, honey, you’re going to cook your own dinner or order takeout while I get caught up on my chapters.”
Only then, when you stake the claim on your space and energy will the investment in your efforts begin to materialize.
When you say, “I’m going to dump this toxic job, and pick up a lower paying, less frustrating gig so I can focus on my real work.” You may need to save up, or cut your budget, but the outcome is an investment in your total value as a creative.
The key to sacred boundary once you’ve staked your claim and placed your securities: USE IT.
Don’t sit in your space worrying what your kids are doing for an hour. Don’t stare at a blank screen and chew your lip because your husband ordered delivery pizza for the eighth time in a month. I swear to you, if he’s grown enough to place an order, he’s grown enough to make nutritional choices of his own. Let it be. Focus on your work.
The point is to generate a pocket of time, energy, space, and do the most you can with it. Only then will you know what you’re truly capable of, and how much you’ve left at the feet of others during your times of frustration.
**It’s hard to reconcile those who remove themselves from your sacred boundary or life with bitterness. It does happen, and it’s a risk you should be aware of up front. Staking a claim on your path to being a creative means you will inevitably push some people and events away.
Very few people in the world have more of a vested interest in your success than you do, and there are many who will be angry, cruel, or dismissive of your efforts to commit to yourself and your craft.
Julia Cameron has a great term for them in her work, The Artists Way. She calls them crazymakers.
I call them energy vampires or creative vampires. They are the ones who enjoy being around your energy, your creative expressions, your output, but the moment your work, efforts, energy isn’t directed toward their benefit or needs they can become outwardly manipulative and unkind.
Once you stop feeding them, they may decide to move along. It’ll be up to you to decide how much you need those relationships in your life. After years of struggling to own my creative power, I’ve become merciless in recognizing these characters and cutting them loose before they can cause damage. And if I’m unable to cut them loose, I walk away from them completely, even if it hurts.
There are those who would argue that staking a claim and owning space is just as selfish as the energy vampire who’s feeding on you. Who is more selfish?
I would like to point out that we are all selfish. Not a human among us is without the tendency to survive, or need, or want. The difference in owning space for your work, and someone being entitled to your efforts or energy.
A note on selfishness: “selfish” is a grossly overused term in our society. We are conditioned to be “selfless”, women especially, self-sacrificing, nurturing, tend to the needs of others first. It’s become a slander to personal and societal values to want something for yourself. To need for yourself.
There is no glory in false martyrdom. If sacrificing your creative fulfillment for the happiness of others who are completely capable of being self-realized themselves is part of your plan, so be it. But the odds are pretty good, that a closet workspace, a few order-in meals a month, and an hour of reserved time each day to yourself isn’t going to upset the balance of the Universe.
At the end of the day there are people in your life who have legitimate needs and claims on your energy; partners, children, lovers, family, and so on. It’s up to you to find the balance in those claims, and the courage to take what you need as well in a way that’s healthy for you. It will ultimately be healthy for them as well, even if it’s a struggle in the beginning. Relationship is a continuous improvement project, but it takes all parties to participate.
That commitment is what signals the gears, the imagination, to know it’s safe to grant the ideas and the manifestation of art into form. Once you make the sacred boundary contract…let the creativity begin.
The Method and the Channel
So, you’ve been filling up your warehouse, stocking sensory data, experiences, life and so forth.
As you fill up your warehouse, ideas will come. It’s up to you then to make sure those ideas start getting processed. Here’s just a glimpse of my average order for the creation phase of a project.
The Method is about the mechanics of the project, whereas the channel is a more difficult and non-tangible concept. However, the channel and the method are interdependent on one another.
Channel is almost always happening to a creative who’s prolific and open. While there’s not a scientific way to explain this intangible piece, I believe in it for my own creative output. I think of it as the pipeline between my creative warehouse and my fingers on the keyboard. Keeping this channel clear, fresh, and available is part of the active and ongoing practice of being a creative.
Depending on your belief system one might describe this channel as the connection between local and non-local self. However you refer to it, the viability and constant accessibility to the information stored in your warehouse is dependent on your relationship with the channel, and the strength of your connection to your creative potentiality. When an artist freezes up, burns out, or gets blocked, it’s almost always related to this particular connection point. The channel.
Method: The method will depend on your medium; paint, music, mathematics, etc. For this article, I’ll focus on writing.
My writing method is: idea, to concept, to draft, to beta, to revisions, to publication.
Idea comes into the channel. I puzzle over it, go for a drive, or sit in the bathtub with wine and think about the idea. What does it need? Is it ready to be worked – yes, go to concept, no-put it back in the warehouse to percolate.
Idea: romantic comedy
Setting: steampunk alternative wild west
Conflict: Bad guy interrupting trade routes of precious commodities
Character 1: Trader
Character 2: Hired muscle
Character 3: Archetype 3
Theme: Love conquers trade routes, and general prejudice….
Concept: Concept is when I do a mockup arc, a plot or story board, choose a template (generally the 3-act structure, but sometimes 6-act structure), pencil a broad arc point within the structure to see what it will look like.
Aside: The 3-act structure of a comedic romance is standardized thanks to Shakespeare,
(Boy meets girl – boy gets girl then boy loses girl – boy gets girl back.)
If this is the template I choose, I might set my idea into this template, then modify it to fit the story needs. A template is just that, mix and match and muddle to your artist’s heart contentment.
Girl meets girl (how) – girl gets girl (how/why) – girl loses girl (why)- girl gets girl back (how/why) and they decide to have an open relationship (because).
To create further interesting detail, pick a layout template.
simple order = chain of collapsing events
bookends = begin with the ending, and work back into the story
scrambled = out of order events (example: Memento)
The possibilities are endless. Also during this concept phase you’re choosing the POV, and the tense.
Final concept: Third person, present tense, comedic lesbian love story, bookend layout of 3-act structure.
- World building requirement: Advanced
- Character building requirement: Moderate
If I get to the end of a concept and I realize I don’t have enough in my warehouse for this project, or time, or energy, I’ll bundle it and shelve it for later. If I’ve concepted and don’t feel like it has enough potential to be interesting, I’ll put it back in the warehouse to percolate.
If, however, my energy and curiosity are piqued, I’ll start drafting.
Draft: Drafting is when the writing begins. This is where channeling really happens. Channeling the inspirations, ideas, sensory data, and more from your warehouse into your work. You’re opening the pipeline from your writing desk to your warehouse and letting the stored data pour through.
Some writers describe it as someone else writing a book using their hands. Other say it’s like grabbing onto a lightning rod in a thunderstorm. It’s been both ways for me.
When a frustrated writer sits down to work and that channel doesn’t open, they say they have writer’s block or the idea is bad. Since I don’t believe in writer’s block, I tell them, go back to the warehouse. Go back to nurturing the connection you have with that space of imagination and possibility. Do something else for a while to take pressure off the valve – then try again later.
Drafting is opening the valve, and letting creative energy course through the channel. It’s the world building, character articulation, conflict manipulation, and a LOT of winging it.
There’s a great debate amongst Nanowrimo participants nearly every year on the boards. “Are you a plotter or a pantser?”
- A plotter lays out the whole story in detail through outlines and storyboards before beginning.
- A pantser flys by the seat of their pants.
There’s no right or wrong way. I tend to use one or the other depending on my mood or level of interest in a project. Usually, I split the difference between the two. While I hammer out the who, where, and why in concept—I generally don’t focus on the details, minutia, hooks, or leads during concept phase so that I can be pleasantly surprised and curios as my characters and events unfold.
Before I start a large project, such as a series or set of interconnected articles, I’ll plan out the big points and map the important revelations so I know where I’m driving the story from chapter to chapter. All of which would happen in concepting.
It just depends on the project.
Once the draft writing begins, problems will surface, issues in the concept will reveal themselves and I’ll have to work around or through them, or go back to the story board and start again. It might take a couple of drafts before I’m ready to beta.
Beta: Beta is the testing phase. How does it read to a fresh set of eyes? What story problems surface? What wasn’t connected in the text from my brain? Did I hit the targets for emotional resonance? World building? Did I make relatable dimensional characters?
Being able to accept critical feedback from a beta reader is important to getting you closer to your story and writing goals.
My caveat to that statement is: you need really reliable, well-tuned beta readers AND you need to know your story and your intentions well enough to know WHEN and WHAT to accept or disregard from the beta feedback. Beta involves a lot of judgement calls, and personal preferences.
For example: If I netted a beta reader for my lesbian comedic romance set in alternative steampunk wild west, and my beta reader is either homophobic, or only tends to read space opera – it’s likely much of the critical feedback will be skewed per their personal tastes, preferences, or bias. It’s a bummer to say it, but the most consistent negative feedback against story beta comes from subconscious prejudice.
This is why it’s especially important to have a beta reader who is story-versed, articulate, and able to separate their personal feelings from the feedback of a story or writing evaluation.
A good beta reader is priceless. The best beta readers are usually part of a writer or reader group that meets consistently, and works regularly to keep their skills sharp.
I like to have both a beta reader who is story versed, and beta readers who are not story-versed.
This is because the story-versed trained reader will grab writing details, inconsistencies, structural faults, and so on. But the readers who allow their own personal interests to impact the story will give details to where the trigger points are, and what lured them in or pushed them out of the story. This is important, because they’re reading the story as a reader would, as a person feeling and relating or not relating to what you’ve written. Their feedback is just as important as the story-versed reader.
Being able to breakdown unrefined beta feedback into helpful data can take a thick skin and a solid trust in your writing and process.
For example: “I’m getting bored.” “Started skipping ahead.” “I put the book down here.” “This part is kind of stupid.”
To some writers this can be hard feedback to receive. I love it! I love these pieces of feedback because they’re telling me something I couldn’t have seen on my own. These are beta indicators that the pacing, tension, and resonance of the story aren’t working for this reader. That doesn’t mean it’s broken, it means that point in the manuscript is in need of attention. If you make it through a revision and still can’t find the problem, compare the rest of the feedback from that reader to find the points that line up, and target the trends in their language.
Revisions: are based on beta feedback and notes I’ve been making while the manuscript was in the hands of test readers. Notes on issues I have suspicions about, but want to know if they’ll pop on the radar after beta.
I might note: I feel like character X is too agreeable to all the points that would have incited interesting tension. Missed opportunity to ratchet up conflict.
Then as I go through the beta notes, if that comment or something like it surfaces: bingo. Make the changes.
The true value of having beta readers cannot adequately be expressed. It’s fair to say about half of what a beta reader notes, I disregard out of hand. Another quarter I ponder and disregard. But the final twenty-five percent-ish that they note or comment on…almost always would have slipped under my radar, or had passed by my brain completely and it made all the difference in the revision process for making a story into a novel. Those choice observations from readers can make or break the story quality.
Publication: Publication is a rabbit hole of editing, polishing, and running the project management gauntlet of timelines, independent contractors, and marketing. As an indie, I do most or all of it myself. What I can’t do by myself, I hire out for, but it can be expensive and slow. This separate process deserves its own post.
Still, to get the idea from the warehouse to the bookshelf, it’s worth it.
So there we have it, my method and channel process tools from the toolbox. That doesn’t mean it’s going to work for everyone. It doesn’t mean I’ll stick to it the same every time. It currently works for me, so I use it, and when it stops working, I’ll revise.
Next in the toolbox: The Sacred Boundary
Each of my creative outlets draw from a central source, a creative pool of stimuli, experiences, curiosity, and research. Julia Cameron calls it the “artists’ well”; a term I used for a long time because it fit, but eventually it became more of a warehouse, a continuously stocked library of information I could rely on, become inspired by, have my interest or curiosity piqued, or a lexicon of sensory and emotional language and resonant anchors.
Formally trained actors and performers call this the “actor’s toolbox”. Isn’t it interesting that the language crossovers are not dissimilar from one craft to the next? This is because so many creative crafts are tied together through this central place of human experience, the story of humanity that we share and explore through creative outlets are all intimately rooted in having experienced something, whether positive, negative, or other–then transformed that experience into an artform, an output, an equation or a scientific explanation. What we learn through this tool, becomes the output in our theater performance, music, theorem, child rearing, community building, and consistently evolving cultural evolution.
Because my warehouse is fundamental to all my creative crafts and forms; writing, storytelling, photography, sculpting, and so on…it’s the tool I focus on the most, and the place I always return to when I’m stuck.
How do I prepare my warehouse and keep it stocked?
This requires continuous upkeep and maintenance. It’s harder at first, when you’re getting the hang of it, but over time, it becomes habit and it happens naturally. Information goes in, and is cataloged and stored for later.
I keep several folders and notebooks of questions I need answers to, things I’m curious about, adventures I’d like to have, places I’d like to go, people I’d love to meet and so on. I call these drivers. Piqued my curiosity? Drop it in the drivers bucket in the warehouse—I guarantee it will come up later, or I’ll stumble into a situation that allows me to experience the answer. Someone hands me a book on a topic I was thinking about, a friend posts link on my wall, a piece of information connects while watching a random movie, or I have time to spare and can surf the Wikipedia wonders of interconnected topics.
Drivers are my key to staying in fresh energy of information and experiences. This has led me to a personal understanding that to be a diverse artist, I need to live an interesting life. If I’m going to tell stories about adventures, I need to live adventures. If I’m going to tell stories about love, I need to live love, and have it in my warehouse of experiences to draw upon.
Creation is never stagnant. Stagnation is death to any living thing. Movement, kinetic energy, growth are all fundamental to evolution; art, stories and inspiration are all part of that evolutionary process. Drivers are really about movement. Tidbits that urge me down the next rabbit hole, or send me off the path of an uncharted discovery all begin with the investigative potential sparked by drivers.
Image & Sensory Files (A Lexicon)
Visualization is a powerful technique. I used to keep folders and drawers of photography, clippings and images that sparked my imagination. Now I have the wonder of Pinterest that allows me to surf, snag and pin unlimited delightful imagery and sensory inspirations to my heart’s content. Pins boards galore house the bulk of my imagery inspirations, and even many boards on my Drivers.
But storing the information on a cloud server isn’t enough. Sensory data demands experience. When I’m needing more sensory data for my Warehouse, I go to the fabric store, and touch EVERYTHING. I wander through craft markets, bazaars, and farmer’s markets. I walk through the forest and catalog the scents. I go to new restaurants and taste dishes I think sound interesting, odd, or delightful. I smell things.
I am often overheard asking, “Hey Liz, can I sniff your muffins?” No joke. But how else to catalog that amazing fresh-baked blueberry muffin scent?
I sniff things. I touch a lot. I put an enormous amount of food and drink in my mouth. I wear unusual textiles. Stare at pretty things, ugly things, confusing things…and make notes. I take a lot of pictures for reference on light, shadow, and drape. I lose time whilst running my fingers over strange surfaces, or rolling a new flavor around my palate.
Idiosyncrasies. The word used to describe artist types with odd or out of normal tendencies. But what most folks don’t know is that those artists are cataloging life, tastes, experiences, and so on—for use later, whether they’re aware of it consciously or not. Sure, some of us are just plain weird, and that’s cool, too. But when you see me glaze over after taking a bite of something amazing, it’s probable I’m cataloging a reference point to come back to the experience ten years down the road, while writing a story.
The Yes Factor
When I went through theatre training at the Portland Actor’s Conservatory, the most profound tool they taught me was yes. I was already doing it in my real life, and in storytelling—but I didn’t know it also applied to performance. What else is living and storytelling, but performance, really.
Anyway, the yes in theater performance is the willingness to try, experiment, interact with—and ACT. Yes, is always an action, even if that action is inaction.
In this section of my yes factor in the Warehouse is an aisle called, “Well, it sounded like a good idea at the time.”
Walking down this aisle you’d think I have a master’s degree in failure. It’s like a screw-up’s hall of fame. It’s littered with plaques and trophies with labels such as, “Unemployable”, “You’re fired!”, “I quit”, “We need a divorce”, “bankruptcy”, “default”, and so on. I could list a half dozen more, but I’m sure you get the gist.
Other boxes and files on this aisle of the warehouse are labeled, “That was a close one” “Woohooo!” “Your book is done”, “Here are the keys to your house”.
Why would I call this section the Yes Factor?
Because as a human, an artist, I had to say yes to every one of the situations that led me through these events. Some I caused myself, others I had a hand in, and some had nothing to do with me except that I was in the wrong or right place, at the wrong or right time. They were all events that I participated in, even if only by association.
But I had to be open to the experience on some level, and learning from it. Yes is a door to information—it’s not always the information you want or ask for, but part of the yes journey is accepting that truth in any form. Part of the yes is saying, “I’m taking all the experience, even the painful, even the ugly, and especially the difficult. And if the experience is lovely, mind-blowing, or glorious—I’m grateful to have it. Then I’m going to store, catalog, and learn from said experiences so I can use it for my work.”
Yes also leads to some pretty phenomenal things, right? It’s not always failure. Yes, can be a lifelong relationship. It can be a relationship that last a month, but still provides one of the best experiences in your lifetime. Yes can be a side trip down the scenic route. Yes can be the choice to book those tickets to Venice, or smile at the cute guy at the coffee shop.
Yes is simply the willingness to try. It’s the willingness to step beyond a definition, to cross a threshold.
In storytelling terms, Yes is answering the call to adventure. It’s the agreement to transitions your story on one particular subject to act two.
Yes, is the contract you make with your life to engage. To challenge your fear, to accept change, to move toward your own climax or destination.
The results of my yes factor are stored in my warehouse. A lovely benefit to this willingness to engage, is that I’m never without a shortage of stories to tell, weird careers to call upon, interesting facts to reference, and pleasant encounters to reminisce upon.
Putting it all together.
Having a fully stocked and organized warehouse is my most effective tool. It’s all-encompassing. It’s the data storage of life and living, dreams and aspirations, desires and fears. It’s the record center of success and failure, imagination, and curiosities.
Some people’s warehouses might look like a circus emporium; other’s a Fort Knox of ideas.
Mine’s a bit of a menagerie, fantasy creatures and stories that never happened mixed with true events no one would ever believe. I satisfy my storytelling by expressing all of it, and leaving the reality up to the imaginations of others. It’s not unlike an episode of Warehouse 13, actually. Sometimes I have no idea what’s going to get pulled out of storage while I’m in there looking for something else. Often hilarity ensues.
The point of the warehouse is to have wealth of information and inspiration to draw upon. When people ask me where I get my ideas or inspiration, I answer, “the warehouse”. Other artists might say, “from life”, or “I get my ideas from everything around me or in the world”.
It’s hard not to sigh when someone asks me where my ideas come from, because once you’ve habitualized living as an art form…you’re never out of ideas. You’re never short on concepts, never dry of plans, never empty of direction or desire, never not hungry for more experience and input.
And once you’ve reached a point of living like you’re constantly devouring the world data around you, building and creating, and manifesting from that state perpetually; then when someone asks where your ideas come from it’s hard not to say, “Pay attention, man! They’re everywhere. They’re lying on the sidewalk like glittering coins, and dripping from the trees.”
Taking the time to explain the answer to someone who is willfully blind to the inspiration around them is exhausting. It’s often draining and unfruitful.
If you have to ask where ideas come from, you’re announcing willful blindness, and asking someone to tell you how to see a world in color. You’re announcing a lack of general curiosity about the complex and wondrous diversity of life. By saying you’re out of ideas, you’re saying, “I’m indifferent to the magic in my immediate environment. I don’t understand gratitude. I don’t know how to recognize the gift of learning from drawing breath.”
Being in that state is not a bad thing if it works. For most people it doesn’t work. For most people they need “something more” and they don’t know what that is. They’re secretly bored, directionless, and depressed, so they go looking for someone to tell them how to get ideas. Their creative world has stagnated, and stagnation breeds a slow death.
There is an answer, there is a cure. There is a way to invigorate your creative center, to breathe life back into your day-to-day. There’s a way to turn your boredom into a rocket forge of creative potential with more ideas than you can manifest in a lifetime. There’s a way to charge your relationships, build your skills, and bring dimensionality back to your world.
But it begins with a willingness to see, to hear, to be affected. It begins with a deal you make with yourself to take the journey, even if you don’t know where the destination is, or who’s going with you. It begins with risk, with a yes, with a notebook and a desire to know, feel, witness, and learn.
And when you accept the call to adventure and you cross that threshold into act two of your creative story—you’ll be opening yourself up to information to catalog, store, and use for later. And you will, because once you take the risk, and truly open up to the wealth of creative energy around you, the movement will become a forward direction away from stagnation, and you won’t be able to hold back all the ideas.
For the next chapter on process and tools, Click to: The Method and the Channel
What’s Your Creative Process?
This question comes up at nearly every Q&A, and I always find it interesting because the funny thing about a “process” for artists and creatives is that its’ different for everyone. The truth about creative process is that every productive, prolific creator has one, even if they’re not aware of it. And every non-productive, frustrated creative, does not have one. There are very few exceptions to this rule.
The frustrated creative always asks, “What’s your process?” but what they’re really asking without knowing it is, “How do I make my creativity work for me, rather than the other way around?”
If you swap the word “process” for the phrase “key to productivity” it’s a completely different answer, an answer that yields much more in the way of helpful direction to a frustrated artist.
I’m a huge fan of process, but with this stipulation; use what works, discard the rest. The moment your process breaks down, needs reconfigured, or can be improved – refine your process, or dump it and get a new one. A creative cannot afford to have a faulty or non-productive creative pipeline.
Process is a tool. That’s all it is. When new writers ask me about my process, they’re really asking about my tool box.
What’s in my toolbox?
- The Warehouse: a storage space for experiences, interests, thought trains, image files (“artists well”), skills, practiced craft, curiosities, and failures. Yes, failures, your most valuable tool in the warehouse.
- The Method: choice of medium(s), collection of craft, and technique to apply to your channel
- The Channel: the opening from your warehouse through your method, into your medium. This is where you sit down and work, build, create.
- The Sacred Boundary: the time and space you set aside to do your work. This time and space is protected, from intrusion and judgement.
Different schools of thought and ways of practicing craft will inform new tools and processes. They are not limited, nor should they be. Having access to lots of methods and practices allows you to build what will ultimately work best for you individually.
Process should never own your productivity. Productivity is supported by process, not caged by it. I think this is where people/creatives tend to break out in hives at the thought of process, order or structure. They think of it like a dungeon, a place where new ideas go to die.
When in fact process is the means by which your idea comes to fruition. It’s the network of strengths, methods, and practices put into place to allow your idea to emerge into reality.
It’s counter-productive to imagine process as the bad guy, that’s like shooting the messenger because you’re afraid they’ll deliver news, any news.
“But, Athena, process kills creativity! It limits ideas!” Alas. Not true. Process only weeds out, the ideas that won’t survive the birthing pains. If your process killed an idea, think of it as culling the garden so other more valuable ideas have more opportunity for sunlight, water, and cultivation. Without this failsafe, you could fall into a perpetual creative energy expenditure and never see the end goal realized. Bitter frustration ensues.
The misconception that process kills ideas comes from a crossover of terms:
Creativity, and productive creativity.
Creativity is the space where anything is possible. It’s cart blanche. It’s the amniotic fluid wherein all outcomes are imaginable, all resolutions achievable, and all interests matter. It’s the think tank, the brainstorm, the ether of imagination. Creativity is the idea buffet table.
Productive creativity (process) us the space where the ether of imagination meets the physics of planet Earth, and let’s be honest, also the pocketbook.
Productive creativity is logistics. HOW, do you get your creativity into a reality-based format? How do you make it pay off? What do you have to invest in time, energy, and money?
Having a process allows productive creativity to flourish, to nip the false starts, prune the runaway branches, streamline your output, and ensure the idea you’ve been nurturing has a real chance to bloom.
So, in the event the process culls out an idea, it’s not killing creativity, it’s trimming off a dead branch. The idea is still there, but that route to fruition is no longer viable. You can trash the whole idea and blame the process to boot, OR you can understand the breaking point of that idea, and reconfigure.
My main character isn’t connecting well with my reader base. They think he’s difficult, and non-dimensional. Robotic, even.
I can trash the whole novel. Throw out months of imaginative work, OR I can realize the beta feedback has a valid point and adjust course.
Reconfigure main character to be an actual robot? Opens up world of sci-fi, or alternate reality steampunk?
Add dimensionality to current character actions: show empathic resonance (ie: “Save the Cat”), add in character historical wound, backstory explaining current state, tweak idiosyncrasies, add a phobia or weakness, etc.
Another way to think about the creativity vs. productive creativity is to remember the Edison quote: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Each time his lightbulb efforts failed to result in a productive outcome, he didn’t throw up his hands and say, “Damn you, process! You killed my creative dream of electric light!”
He simply said, “Well, this isn’t the one. Next?”
The idea remained vibrant and possible. It stayed present in his efforts. The process weeded out the ways the idea wouldn’t succeed, eventually leaving only one viable option.
Conversely, there are ideas that might not re-configure. There are ideas that have no map to fruition, or pathway to completion. Those routes have not been created yet, either by you, or others. There are ideas that hit a limitation of energetic resources, bandwidth, time, or money.
Does the process that reveals those limitations deserve slander? No. Reconfigure if possible, or store the idea for later if it’s a limitation that can be resolved, or bury the idea completely if it hits a wall and cannot be revived. Save energy for the ideas that light your fire, and keep you passionate – those are the ideas that bear fruit. Those are the ideas that will keep feeding your creative hunger and vigor long into your productive career.
- Process is just a tool.
- Creativity and productive creativity are two different states of creation.
- As a creative, fill your toolbox with what works for you individually.
For articles on what’s in my personal creative toolbox, please see:
The Channel (pipeline)
The Sacred Boundary
Sinnet of Dragons is set to launch next week.
Sinnet of Dragons is written for a young adult audience. It’s the prequel to Murder of Crows; book one in the Pillars of Dawn series.
There’s a distinctive voice and content difference between the YA prequel and the rest of the series. Why?
I could blame it all on my Write Club buddy, Loey, as writing a young adult novel was her idea, but the truth is I had gotten so much feedback from young readers after Murder of Crows that it made want to write something they could begin with, that would allow them to grow into more adult content in the Pillars of Dawn series.
To be even more transparent, I received so much hate mail from parents who hadn’t vetted their children’s’ kindle downloads for Murder of Crows that I realized; I needed to make an effort to reach the younger readers prior to the opening of the series. Then they could choose to continue the series or not as they were able to select their own content.
Sinnet of Dragons, the prequel to the Pillars of Dawn series is YA content friendly
The Pillars of Dawn series is as follows and contains adult content:
Murder of Crows, book one
Scold of Jays, book two
More books to come.
I considered a lot of feedback and advice from writers of the YA genre, and readers. I also listened to a lot of advice and feedback from parents, writers, storytellers, and the target demographic of 12 to 18 years of age.
Lots of ideas were thrown around about how best to communicate the age and content acceptability; many even suggested a universal grading mark such as those used on video games and movies. It breaks my heart that we’ve come to that too-easy metric of content value.
My personal feelings as a writer and storyteller are very much influenced by the fact that I had to escape from a strict religious upbringing in order to gain a better scope and understanding of human diversity, general acceptance, and freedom. Movies were rated, thus controlled in my home. But books were not rated, so I had free license to read anything I wished.
It was this freedom of story, of the discovery of my world through books that allowed the universal questions burning me alive with curiosity to be answered. There was no YA genre designation when I was a kid, so I read everything. Biographies, world religions, fiction, philosophy, history, sci-fi, fantasy, and so on.
But I unashamedly admit the discovery of love and the questions of what happens to my developing body weren’t answered until I began reading harlequin romance, and high drama books like, Flowers in the Attic. I had no other way to access information about my body, and teen challenges, but for the bounty of the library system. I certainly wasn’t going to get information from my mother or people in my community with a vested interest in keeping me “young” or “innocent” but mostly ignorant.
Hamstrung, as I used to say. Intentionally lamed so I couldn’t race.
Because I wasn’t limited in book content, my imagination was never limited, and my curiosity only grew stronger. When I found a book I wanted but couldn’t get at the school library because it was on a banned list or otherwise unreachable, my school librarian would order it to the city library for me to pick up. If they couldn’t get it, she would personally find a copy of the book and loan it to me from her home library. Several of my teachers also loaned me books I couldn’t get on my own. And I even once begged my sister into buying a book I needed and saw in the window at the airport bookstore, promising to pay her back. I don’t think I ever did pay her back, actually. But I knew once I left her care and went back home to Alaska, I wouldn’t have easy access to that book again.
I began to see my teachers and librarians as the only people who were genuinely invested in my growth and development. The gatekeepers to unlimited knowledge that had otherwise been consistently withheld from me because of my mother’s religion or my society’s idea of a one size fits all age acceptability. I thought of it as their idea of lazy socially acceptable conditioning.
Anyway, it was my access to books on Latin that gave me interest in designing language. Access to books like The Egyptian Book of the Dead, that sparked interest in rituals designating cultural transition points. This prompted a curiosity for fictional world building right about the time I stumbled onto Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. And so on and so forth. Books led to more books, which led to discoveries, which led to development.
It’s easy to see the immense importance books had in my writing and creative career in the unlimited access to reading material.
The debate at my publishing group got very heated one weekend as we were discussing my reluctance to enter the YA ring. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into an age bracket.
It got pretty interesting when I approached the question about what makes YA content YA specifically. The industry (large publishing houses and market) designates YA as lead characters of juvenile age in coming of age story or adventure.
But several YA authors in my small publishing club insist it’s content with no sex, or swear words.
Well, hell. I’m out then.
But wait. Other YA writers said sex and swearing are important to the juvenile audience reading to understand and connect with their world. Yes! Agreed.
Then the final split came when two YA authors who are also women in their forties who consistently read YA said they write and read YA to re-live the childhoods they didn’t get to have.
So YA as a genre designation means different things to different people. Because it’s not a unified expectation, there’s room for me to maneuver as a storyteller.
Funnily enough, violent content never surfaced as part of the argument. In the typical American double standard, violence is widely acceptable content, but sex and swearing is not. Perpetuating the social make war not love standard that we know and live with today. (IE: Hunger Games physical violence, and Twilight emotional violence.)
Ultimately, I had to make a storytelling judgement call. I couldn’t find very many references of a content designation split in a series, or body of work. Most notably the only real reference I could find for such a split was J.R.R. Tolkien and the separation of the Hobbit (young adult) to Lord of the Rings (Adult). After the argument at the publishing group, and lots of discussions with parents, readers, and kids. I went back to my writing desk, ripped out half of the Sinnet of Dragons chapters and started over with a different intent.
My intent was to make a prequel that anyone could read. It’s YA safe, according the basic standards (no sex as the story didn’t actually support it, and only a couple of swear words well placed), but does contain violence. It’s got the typical YA tropes, and crutches, but supports the story for the beginning of the whole Pillars of Dawn series.
It is meant to be a peace offering, a kickoff to the bigger story. A book that’s easily vetted by parents, and YA readers.
Will it be boring for readers who picked up Murder of Crows first? I hope not. I hope it’s still engaging for readers who found Murder of Crows first. If nothing else, the origin and backstory are available for reference in Sinnet of Dragons as the series continues.
If you have any questions of comments about the content of Sinnet of Dragons, please feel free to contact me via the comments below, or directly through the webform on this page. I’m happy to talk about the decision to separate the content and give it a label designation. I realize it’s not for every author and I’d be glad to have a conversation about it.
Thank you for considering Sinnet of Dragons and the Pillars of Dawn series for your reading list! I look forward to the feedback!
Transcript to ‘Resist the Darkness’ by Athena
This is the transcript to my resist the darkness speech. Please feel free to remake it in your own image, with your own voice. If you’re resisting, if you’re standing up against the darkness, please feel free to take what you need, to spin it, tag it back to this place… and keep fighting the good fight. Keep creating. Keep imagining. Keep supporting your neighbors, and community.
We are the light.
Resist the Darkness by Athena
Now, more than ever we need to support art, free thought, and human diversity. We need to promote science, mathematics, history, technology, and innovation. We need to promote human rights, diversity, and inclusion.
In an early first volley, our national leadership has targeted the freedom to release scientific discoveries and data. There are active attempts to use “alternate fact” in place of evidence and to write history in a manner of propaganda rather than reality. There’s are active attempts to close down publicly funded art programs, and arts in education. There are persistent attempts to dehumanize, divide, and conquer.
Why is it important to resist these attempts to subvert human rights, intellect, and creativity?
Because in these areas, Science, Math, Art, Technology, History and so on, they are the pillars of human societal evolution. They are the progressive map of who we are and what we’ve striven for throughout history in order to achieve a more abundant and dimensional quality of life.
We use these inspirational tools to understand ourselves as people, to understand our neighbors, and the human experience. We use these tools to quantify reality, make sense of matter, and to justify the mysteries of the Universe beyond what we can measure, or articulate, and reason.
We use these inspirations to query reality, sometimes we discover answers and sometimes only deeper questions, but the outcome is a work of art, a dance, a line of poetry or a beautiful mathematical proof. These answers can come in the form of theorem, music, a technological leap in communication, or even a play. We, as a human race are immeasurably enriched by the search and the discovery of these Universal questions and resulting expressions.
I am resisting the idea that art should be defunded, because art/ entertainment and exploration are fundamental to human emotional process and expression.
I am resisting restrictions and censorship of scientific data sharing, because we, as the human race, deserve to know the discoveries of our Universe and our world, the depth of its need, the scope of its possibility, and the edges of its continuous mystery.
I am resisting the attempts to hamstring education, history and technology. I’m resisting the attempts to divert my attention to war, and fear, and hate – by remembering this fundamental truth, that all the inspirational tools of our human mastery, all the creative and scientific innovations and wonder of our human capacity bely the very nature of war, fear, and hate.
Inspiration is the antithesis to bigotry. The inspirations are the countermeasure to emotional and mental terrorism.
Inspiration is light.
Resist the darkness.
Whether you’re a full time creative, working a day job, or running a household, maximizing your creative productivity means you get the most output from your creative efforts. Let’s be honest, output shouldn’t be the sole defining point of doing creative work, but in a world that defines value based on output metrics…there’s a constant pressure to produce, to show earning potential.
These points are not to help show earning potential. They are simply to help creatives get the most out of their efforts. Earning potential will come, eventually, but first find ways to elevate energy, simulate creative flow, and harness the creative power. What you do with it once you’re channeling it regularly is up to you!
Work with your power cycles, not against your natural rhythms.
This may seem trivial, but to an artist trying to make a living, it’s critical. Knowing your most productive times each day and prioritizing those windows means maximizing your output, and not burning out.
For example; my most creative times are 10AM to Noon, 2PM to 4PM, and 8PM to 2AM. The spaces in between those windows are not useless, if I’m on a good roll, I can write from 10AM to 10PM and only get up for bathroom breaks, generally forgetting to eat if I’m really deep in a chapter.
However, that’s a quick road to burnout… avoid burnout if possible.
While scheduling and building a rhythm, I try to slot day to day maintenance and upkeep in those spaces around creative power points. Get up from the computer, get the blood moving, clean the house, garden, do lunches and social time, etc.
This is part of building process, or as creative say, building sacred spaces to keep the distractions out.
I have a whole series on creative process in the queue that I’ll post later, but the point is this. Building a sacred space for channeling creativity isn’t always a physical location. It’s not always a room, or an office, or a meditation spot in the woods. Sometimes a safe space, is just sacred time.
Sacred time = the creative’s holy grail.
Sure, you do need a safe space to work, but that includes uninterrupted time. No phone, no bills, no visitors, and –don’t shoot the messenger—no internet. I know, I know. Facebook is interesting, but it’s also a huge creative time sink. If you want safe space/time…ditch the connections to the information superhighway a couple of hours at a time.
I can’t even begin to catalog the number of times I was on a good creative roll, and stopped to take a breath, check my email, Facebook, etc. then fell down a wikipedia rabbit hole for three hours and lost the creative surge. It was a totally preventable sidetrack, that could have waited until my two-hour writing space was done.
Once I made the commitment to be focused, I started keeping a notebook list of things to look up on the internet AFTER my creative window closed. My chapter needs the symptoms of arsenic poisoning –look it up after. My character needs a date from events twenty years ago—look it up later. My arc needs a historical reference—look it up later.
Save these notes for looking up online later, during the maintenance and upkeep windows. I mark my works in progress with an (x) to come back to. I just keep on writing (x) and know I’ll fill in the blank later. Better that than risk the wonderful and never ending internet sinkhole.
Shuffle creative mediums to keep energy moving.
This isn’t for everyone, but I know I need it for my own personal productivity; diverse creative stimuli. I like to work with several mediums; writing, photography, papercraft, cooking, sculpting, etc. This is my way of keeping creative energy moving through the channel.
When writing gets sticky, characters and chapters slow down to an ebb or trickle—move to a different medium to create.
Design a recipe. Build a scrap album. Take the camera out for a walk. Sculpt. Garden.
These creative outlets take the focus off my sticking point and place it somewhere else while keeping energy moving through, preventing stagnation on one problem or in one area of creative focus. It also helps pump up the energy in your creative reserve for use later.
If I hit a wall completely with a character, story problem, etc., I write it down, set it next to my computer or on my storyboard. Then I go do something entirely unrelated to storytelling or writing. When the focus is removed from the rub, and creative energy still flows through the channel in another form, sculpting, photography or something else—it tends to bump the question loose and creative solutions rise to the surface.
This is why I don’t believe in writer’s block, the boogeyman. (Posts and classes on the boogeyman coming soon.)
The important part is to not dig at the problem, just keep creativity flowing through the channel, and the answer to the problem will wash through with everything else.
Use inspiration when you’ve got it, but don’t sit around waiting for it to strike.
I made this mistake a lot when I was first starting out. I thought I had to wait for the muse to bless me, the stars to align, the weather to be perfect, my coffee the correct temperature, etc.
I know a lot of people who say they only write when they’re inspired. It works for some folks. They’re often the same folks who constantly complain “why am I not getting published?” “I don’t have anything to show for this week’s work?”
I also know people who only create when they’re sad, depressed, or in a strong emotional state. It makes sense, art is cathartic. Some people are only driven to create when they don’t know how to process their emotions otherwise. Again, it works for some people.
Emotional energy is creative energy.
I didn’t start making my writing targets and word counts until I began believing that the muse is always present. Creative energy is always accessible. I just have to sit down with the intention of tapping in, and get to work. Some days are inspired work, and other, just work. Yet my output increased and the body of work surfacing allowed more to pick and choose from in terms of what to keep and continue to improve, and what to write off as practice. I began thinking of it as the more I practiced inviting the muse in, the more frequently the inspiration came when I sat down to work.
I realized then that saying I can only be creative when the muse inspires me is like saying I can only love my partner if he’s looking right at me and telling me I’m fabulous. That’s not how love works, and it’s certainly not how inspiration works.
Inspiration doesn’t have to be looking at you, telling you you’re pretty, for creative energy to be present.
The importance of doing nothing.
It’s counter intuitive to the concept of maximizing productivity, but doing nothing is incredibly important to the creative process. Some of the most prolific and creative people in history scheduled daily naps. No joke.
Daydreaming, zoning out, a Netflix binge, staring into space, surfing Pinterest, star gazing, a day on the couch with a book or two, going for a drive. Lollygagging, loitering in the park, or as my fellows say, futzing around.
Why is this important to maximizing productivity? Recovery.
This tool, doing nothing, is the hardest tool to learn, work with—especially if you’re a driven, busy, or ambitious creative.
Over the years I’ve learned that when a nothing hits me to just go with it until I become restless and itchy with the need to be productive. It’s hard. Especially when I’ve got deadlines, places to be, projects stacked in the queue. The to do list blinks like neon in the back of my brain until I learn to shut it down, and be empty for a few moments.
I think of it as the creative’s oil change, right? When you’re at Jiffy Lube, your car is doing nothing. You can’t go anywhere. Old oil is being drained out, a new filter placed in the engine, and fresh lubricant poured back in. Not only is it necessary to the longevity of your engine, it improves your gas mileage and efficiency.
A silly comparison, but accurate.
When your done doing nothing, you’re more rested, refreshed, and mentally/emotionally geared up to take on more creative effort. Problems are easier to solve, solutions manifest easier, and you can take a pen to that neon to-do list with more vigor.
Nothing time can be scheduled or used as it comes in an organic way. It’s difficult to coach this one to a population of busy, grab and go on the run folks, but it’s one of the best tools out there to keep a creative fresh, and all it costs is a little time.
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How can we unite as artists and creators to support positive change in a politically unstable time?
I knew it would be a difficult question, I didn’t have any answers myself and hoped other creators would inspire my article. Tim Harnett talked about the need for more compassion, which is vital to our current political and economic situation in this country. How can we even think about moving forward without a more compassionate awareness and framework?
How can we unite as artists and creators to support positive change in a politically unstable time?
Simply put: by being creative. By creating. By re-imagining a better way of moving forward. By articulating a new vision, a dance, a play, a painting. By finding the science, yes, science, to support the needs, and the math, yes math, to give that science and imagining a foundation.
How can we unite as artists and creators to support positive change in a politically unstable time?
By using our voices.
For over a decade I’ve been working on a series titled, The Pillars of Dawn. It’s a series about the Greek Muses reborn into our modern world to rescue us from the new Dark Ages. An age without creativity, art, or science.
What started out as a fun set of short stories in 2004 has turned into a fully arced ten book series that’s my treatise on the necessity and value, the very real human and societal need for creativity. The thirteen years of research on the nature of creativity has been both a blessing, and a life mission. It’s slowly re-defined my commitment to art and craft, and way of life.
Innovation, evolution, creative energy, and the power of cultural staples such as; art, music, science, math, technology, communication, theater, and so on shape us. They define us as a people. They are the stories we’ve inherited, and they lay the foundations of the reality we’re actively creating.
Yes, science, math, and technology are all part of the creative matrix.
So– How can we unite as artists and creators to support positive change in a politically unstable time?
Be a voice.
Be a patron.
Be a collaborator in these changing times.
…. And keep asking the questions….
“It’s about time to help others…” by Flickr user Leticia Bertin. CC-BY-2.0″
“Observe how far the United States has fallen behind others in endeavors at which others excel…Ride a train in Switzerland after riding one in the United States and the point becomes clear.”
It’s difficult for me to think of political instability in terms of the United States. After all, I grew up indoctrinated with the belief that America excelled at everything. American exceptionalism was learned from a very young age. It wasn’t until I left the country in 2008 for the Peace Corps that I really started to question what American exceptionalism was and how far the reality fell short of the ideal. Throughout my lifetime, America has ignored its issues: crumbling infrastructure, gender and racial inequality, income disparity. These problems have always existed, to be sure, but what’s changed is our awareness of them. When riots happen, we learn about them, often within minutes. Injustices are recorded and broadcast over the internet. Friend networks communicate about discrimination and hate.
“America! F*ck yeah!””
The tongue-in-cheek parody of Team America: World Police seems less and less like parody these days. For the past 100 years, America has seen itself as the world’s protector. Defender of democracy. So we believed during the Cold War. Yet, with its limitless commitment to unending wars, America is now the world’s bull, running amok through the metaphorical china shop. As we relinquish the title of greatest nation on Earth to those nations who practice compassion better than we ever will, America remains steadfastly committed to bootstrapping, and ignorant of how callous that mindset is. Then again, relinquishing the title implies that the title was ours to give up. Perhaps it never was. Perhaps America simply did one good thing one time and coasted on that reputation for the next fifty years.
When I think about the adjectives I would use to describe America, compassion is not one of them. If anything, the opposite is true. America is a hard nation. Social programs that have been in place for decades are slowly being chipped away. College tuition has risen to the point where students graduate with a degree and a monkey on their back. Health-care costs are so routinely exorbitant that people crowdfund their hospital bills. Where is the compassion of this nation? Did it ever exist? At what point does society see the thousands and millions who have fallen behind and decide to give them a helping hand?
If artists hope to effect any sort of change during these times, it must start with compassion. A willingness to help. This can take on many forms, such as giving a voice to the voiceless, supporting fellow artists, or demanding more from our elected officials. Through compassion, artists and creators can work together for positive change. We can make America a little less hard…if we try.
What Fair Trade/Sustainable Art Means to Me
The existence of fair trade and sustainable art predates our current economic system. The economic system we live under now did not naturally arise. We created it to serve a purpose and over the centuries forgot what we had done and now see it as the normal way for our lives to work.
A long time ago and not so far away, in the middle ages, farmers, coopers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, shoemakers, cloth weavers—most of whom we would call artisans today— peasants generally, gathered to trade in fairs or bazaars—an idea brought back from the crusades. An expanded market for trading goods and services greatly expanded the quality of life for the majority of people in European countries. Europe experienced one of the most rapid economic expansions in history. This was a peer-to-peer economy where human relationships and reputations promoted better business. Competition and interdependence maintained a high quality of goods and services. Value existed in what people produced and in people themselves through the skills they possessed. Local currencies sprang up for purchasing items. No one considered accumulating these currencies as they were only worth something when circulated.
This all came to an end as the aristocracy and royalty realized they had lost their monopoly on value creation. By taxing the fairs, outlawing local currencies, creating monopolies for selected companies to have exclusive control over their industries, the peer-to-peer economy all but disappeared. A central currency, “coin of the realm,” and a central banking system became critical to displacing free trade. This forced craftspeople to seek employment rather than create and trade. Instead of creating their wares, people sold their time. Rather than hire skilled labor, business owners quickly learned that unskilled, easily replaced labor could be paid far less and be fired if they complained about the terrible work conditions. This is called industrialization.
Creating manufacturing processes that removed the need for skilled labor is what drove the industrial revolution. Industrialization was about the aristocracy taking back their power while reducing the value and price of human laborers. Industrialization did not increase efficiency overall, nor increase the quality of life for people. It did quite the opposite. The costs of industrialization are enormous. You may also notice from what our new president says about global warming, those costs need to remain hidden by those who benefit from it the most. In fact rather than a benefit to humanity, industrialization has become an extinction level event.
In modern society everything is designed to provide a constantly growing return on investment for people dedicated to the accumulation of wealth. Today they are the equivalent of the medieval aristocracy. They are parasites living off the majority of humans for the sole purpose of accumulating wealth. Like parasites they will, in time, kill the host. Using up our resources, our land, having more and more people working harder for less and less jobs for less and less money cannot continue forever.
In this system you are worth nothing if your time cannot make money for other people and that money is the measure of your worth—the thing you create itself is actually worth nothing. As a human being you are worth nothing in our society. Your only “real” worth is monetized. We pay lip service to the value of human life as valuable in and of itself, because to do otherwise would lower revenues. If this were not so we would not allow thousands of people a year to die by gunshot so the gun manufacturing industry can continue expanding their markets, we would not allow ourselves to make the planet uninhabitable through global warming to keep the oil and coal industry to continuously expand, we would not have the threat of nuclear war hanging over our heads in support of a multi-billion dollar nuclear arms industry.
How artists are treated in our culture further illustrates what we value. If an artist does not provide a solid return on investment, she is not worth anything in dollars. Artists are only valued in America if they are part of a corporate structure where they provide investors with a sustainable growth revenue. If there is no revenue for investors, an artist has little access to even earning a basic living. There is a reason so little diversity exists in mainstream entertainment and art. Diversity exists in the “long tail” of marketing and as long as it does not provide a sustainable growth revenue for banks and investors they will not support it.
This lack of diversity in mainstream art and the singling out of artists as unworthy of healthcare, retirement planning, and short term disability exist because independent artists pose a grave threat to that small group of parasites. What if people valued themselves, each other, and what they created, such as art, rather than the accumulation of wealth? If that happened, all those ones and zeros accumulating on bank hard drives would be of no value to anyone. A singularly terrifying situation for our parasites.
Within the realm of our current set of values, human beings may go extinct, or at best survive at a far reduced level. This only makes sense, considering that who we are as human beings and what we create is ultimately of no value to our society as it exists now.
None of this has to be this way. None of it arose naturally. We created it. We have brainwashed ourselves, bamboozled, lied to ourselves; we are credulous, lack skepticism, dumbed ourselves down, made ourselves numb―overwhelmed, we live lives of quiet desperation, frightened that if we are unable to pay our bills, we’ll end up in the street. We must carry our own weight. The ultimate plan for any artist’s survival is to break down and get a job, get paid for making someone else money—then we’ll be worth something.
We have particular skills and talents that we alone possess, that no machine can duplicate, that make us irreplaceable and worth something in and of ourselves. By our existence we constantly point to the fact that humans and our interactions are the real source of human value. We impact other people by what we do in unforeseen and unpredictable ways. That poses a grave threat to the system, the establishment, the man, the matrix, to them.
However, in reality there is no us and them, that is a lie perpetrated by those of us who desire the accumulation of wealth over everything else. There is only us, several billion people on a little blue marble in space. As it regards us artists, it boils down to the question, what do we value?
Be skeptical, incredulous, particularly about what I am saying here. Make your own inquiries and research. Band together. Support each other. Create fair trade. Sustain your art. Look beyond the box you are living in and make a living at what you love to do. What you do as an artist could put value creation back in the hands of artisans and out of the hands of the parasites. What you do as an artist could transform human beings into a race that possesses a real measure of humanity.
Cover image “Written & Directed” by Flickr user Marco Nürnberger. CC-BY-2.0
Pop quiz: how many female movie directors can you name?
I can name less than a half-dozen, and the only reason that number is so high is because I’ve been watching female-directed features recently for review on my other blog, Dorkadia. My list includes:
Sam Taylor-Johnson (50 Shades of Grey)
Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle)
Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight)
Drew Barrymore (Whip It)
Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)
See the pattern? With the exception of The Hurt Locker, famous female directors seem confined to romantic thrillers and rom-coms. These isolated incidents either. Animated features, rom-coms, and romantic thrillers dominate this list of the top movies directed by women. The lone exception? Disaster movie Deep Impact, which was the highest-grossing live-action movie directed by a woman until Twilight. Accolades don’t seem to help in women’s’ favor either when it comes to finding work. Since winning the Best Director Oscar for 2008’s The Hurt Locker, Bigelow has only directed two other features.
While diversity in entertainment may not match tech’s horrible numbers, the data shows that Hollywood is still very much a man’s world. In 2013 the New York Film Academy released a sobering infographic on the statistics of gender inequality in film. In front of the camera, only 10.7% of all movies featured a balanced, representative cast. Women are also shoehorned into specific film genres. Women are more than twice as likely to direct documentaries than narrative films, for example. Or take the previously mentioned list of the highest-grossing female directors, whose output consisted of mainly romantic movies.
More recent data agrees with the New York Film Academy’s claims. According to the 2016 Celluloid Ceiling Report, women make up only 17% of behind-the-camera job titles. When examining the top 250 domestic grossing movies of last year, only 17% are cinematographers, directors, editors, executive producers, producers, or writers. This is 2% down from last year and essentially flat with statistics from 1998. And 1998 was considered a high point.
In the face of such disparity, what can be done to increase representation both in front of and behind the camera? Here’s several suggestions.
Recognize how diversity contributes to the bottom line. Adding more women to the mix isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s profitable for studios. Women currently purchase half of all movie tickets sold in the United States. The more representation on screen, the more tickets can be sold as people see themselves represented in pop culture. This goes for women, people of color, or anyone else different from the norm.
Take advantage of the pipeline. Women are both out there making movies and preparing for careers in film. Gender parity exists at several prestigious film schools, according to the Huffington Post. Meanwhile, sites like The Director List maintain a database of women in film with proven track records. Women are out there; they just need their voices to be heard. Which can be done by:
Fund female-centric films. The past few years has seen renewed interest in funding movies written or directed by women. Both Vimeo and the National Film Board of Canada have made pledges to increase funding for female-centric movies. The more women have access to funding, the more movies women will be able to release. More female-driven movies won’t add up to much; however, without:
Support for female-centric films as a moviegoer. This whole blog post coalesced in part thanks to my recent rewatch and review of 2008’s Twilight over at Dorkadia. While Twilight may never make anyone’s list of Earth-shattering films, it’s very female-driven, with a woman writing the source material, adapting the material for the screen, and directing. While Twilight’s domestic gross only puts it in the top 200 of highest-grossing movies of all time, it struck a chord with many people around the world. Certainly the increased tourism it brought changed Forks, Washington for the better. Women did that. Women changed the cultural zeitgeist. And more women can do the same, if given the chance.
Now that Wisegoddess.com has been up a year and we’ve tested some layouts and feedback loops, we’re ready to open to regular contributors.
It has been an exhausting four-year journey to socialize the concept of BlissQuest Publishing. Fair trade sustainable art, and diversity in entertainment are movements that are now underway and gaining momentum, visibility, and market share.
Yes, market share. Why does this excite me to no end?
Because if a movement is gaining market share, producers will buy in to catch the wave. They might not be buying in for the overall goal of supporting fairness, equality, and more diverse representation – but whether they’re buying in for profit or something else, the end result is momentum.
While producers are fixing to buy into these concepts as they’re still registering on the market radar… we’ve got work to do to be ready to influence that wave. We need to be ready to boost the paradigm shift.
This is where we as creators, innovators, change agents, and storytellers – my fellow disruptors; this is where we get to put our weight toward the change we want to see, and leverage new cultural evolution.
We have a window, let’s use it.
What is a paradigm?
What is our current paradigm? What says the current hive mind?
The population census of the United States records that women make up 51% of the population.
Still, they are earning less on the dollar for same labor as men, have fewer autonomous rights over body, and are represented by less than half in the higher more powerful roles of business, entertainment and publishing. Is this a cultural paradigm? Can it be shifted?
The population census of the United States records that people of color (non-white) make up 36% of the population. Yet still, representation of people of color in positions of power, influence, entertainment and reference are shown less than 12% of the time. Often when they are represented they are type-casted as criminal, poverty stricken, or undereducated – IE put in repressed positions, degraded or devalued.
Example’s Conclusion of Paradigm?
White male dominance or privilege in areas of authority, influence or financial power.
Can this paradigm be altered, influenced, or evened out? Yes.
How do we bridge the gap between what the current paradigm is, versus where we want to drive it?
Storytellers are bridge builders
The sacred role of storytellers.
Storytellers have captured culture, change, and the human journey for centuries. Be it through the cave drawings and retellings of herd migrations, songs of epic warfare, love poetry, or a cozy mystery on a blustery afternoon, story has been central to society for thousands of years.
Storytellers are influencers, creators, agents of inspiration, and the messengers of the cautionary tale. Storytellers are the transition point of what was and is – to what can and will be. If they write it, dance it, film it – if they build it the next generation will have that foundation from which to build their next evolution. We find ourselves in need of strong storytellers, open minds, and deeply compassionate voices in these difficult times.
If you are such a storyteller, I salute you!
Who is a change agent?
Anyone who participates in change. Anyone who acts left, right, or sideways from the ascribed paradigm. A change agent is the person who speaks up for someone being bullied on the subway. A change agent is someone who skips the big box office release of yet another all male, all white cast, opting instead for the indie flick with a more diverse set of characters. A change agent doesn’t have to make huge political statements or heroic gestures; their heroism is measured by their personal choices that support a larger initiative toward worldwide community and acceptance.
Are you a change agent? What other paradigms are you interested in shifting via participation?
I sincerely hope you’ll consider joining the Wisegoddess community. As we grow and expand, I expect our goals to migrate toward a wider scope. These are just a few examples of paradigms, and cultural revolutions in the making. Please feel free to politely disagree, offer alternative views, and elevate the topic for discourse. As long as we’re all respectful and open to dialog, there’s a lot we can accomplish. There is much adventure to be had!
Viva la Story
I’ve been writing for longer than I’d like to admit. I joke about being thrown off of my father’s computer when I was six years old for typing rude words. While that did happen, I’m not certain that particular novel was ever going to come to anything. In reality I’ve been pursuing writing professionally for about ten years now with only one real gap.
That gap lasted almost a year, and it came from one major misunderstanding on my part; I was trying to be a good writer. I‘d heard that a good writer sits down every day to work. I‘d heard that a good writer edits and edits until all of the evil is driven from their manuscript, leaving only shining golden prose.
The first one led me to quit writing for a year, the second stopped me from getting my work published for almost a decade.
Write Every Day
In a perfect world I’d be free to sit down at the computer each morning and write to my heart’s content. I’m getting closer to the goal of becoming a full-time author with every book I get published, but it will still be a few years of hard work yet. Before I get to write for myself, I still have to spend about eight hours each day writing for other people to pay the bills. Back when I quit, I was working twelve hours a day in an unrelated job. Sometimes more. I had no time for hobbies. I had no time for much of anything except sleeping, then heading back to work. Writing was one straw too many. I wasn’t getting anything written even when I did sit down to do it. I was exhausted.
Unfortunately, I had to eat. I had to put a roof over my head. Like most writers in the modern era, I didn’t have rich parents or patrons to lean on. I had to work.
Writing requires energy, something that all of us only have a limited supply of. I was all out. Even now that I’m in a much more comfortable position I sometimes look at that expanse of blank white on the screen and it is too much.
The most important lesson that I’ve learned about writing is that most of the work happens long before I put my fingers to the keys. That’s why I can cheerfully churn out a novella in a weekend but writing sprints like NaNoWriMo are a nightmare to me. (The first year that I attempted it nearly prompted me to quit writing all over again, and the month long depression brought me as close as I have ever been to divorce.)
So I am a bad writer. Some days when I’m struggling I just don’t bother. I understand myself well enough to know that I’ll make up for lost time on those good days when inspiration strikes and I have the energy. When I’m working out how long a project is going to take, I average the up and downs.
Refine to Perfection
While banging my head against the wall of having no energy and no idea what I’m working on may have derailed me once or twice over the years, the idea that I could make my writing perfect by coming back to it over and over is what nearly ruins me on a daily basis.
There is an old adage that no work of art is ever completed; only abandoned. My problem is that I just can’t quite pry my fingers off of them. I’ve held onto short stories for years before submitting them. I have a folder of abandoned stories that didn’t even get that far. Too imperfect to even come to fruition. One particular story has gone through the grind of edits and revisions so many times I’ve lost count; comparing the latest draft to the very first, one is clearly inferior to the other. The writing is more grammatically correct perhaps, but the edited version has lost all the passion the first one held.
I know that I’m meant to edit in passes, the first one to put the story structure in order, the second to fix the prose, the third to fix the dialogue and the fourth to fix descriptions. That’s the way I was taught to work by older and more experienced authors when I was first starting out. As it turns out, the correct number of editorial passes for every novel that I have actually sold is one; to pick up any typos.
So I am a bad writer. I don’t edit my work before sending it off, and it is much better for it. Of course, I get pages and pages of notes and changes back from my editors but from what I understand, the situation would be the same regardless of how long I review and revise.
Be a Bad Writer
Writing is an art rather than a science; there is no “right” way to be a writer, only a cacophony of conflicting advice coming at you from all directions. Writing every day does not make you a writer any more than swimming every day makes you a fish.
It has taken me years of practice to get to the stage where I believe my work is good enough to be published. Years in which I took classes, studied the craft of writing, and read extensively.
Being a “good” writer made me miserable. Being a “bad” writer made me successful. If you can call someone who still has to eat Ramen for every other meal successful.
G D Penman writes Speculative Fiction. He lives in Scotland with his partner and children, some of whom are human. He is a firm believer in the axiom that any story is made better by dragons. His beard has won an award. If you have ever read a story with Kaiju and queer people, it was probably one of his. In those few precious moments that he isn’t parenting or writing he likes to watch cartoons, play video and tabletop games, read more books than are entirely feasible and continues his quest to eat the flesh of every living species. He is the author of over a dozen books including; The Year of the Knife, Motherland, Call Your Steel and Heart of Winter.
I’m so excited to be able to post my interview with Kelli Richards from All Access Radio! We are entering the era of the creative! Please leave comments and feel free to share.
Dear Creative Change Agent,
Thank you for being an instrument of change, story, and humanity.
I would like to invite you to join Wisegoddess.com as a regular content provider. Wisegoddess.com was built to be a village, a community for artists, developers, builders, and innovators to discuss and implement creativity, change, and positive discourse.
The goal is to bring great voices and minds into conversations and dialog about creative change. Change in the world, politics, and ourselves as artists and audience. Within the year of 2017, it is my hope that BlissQuest Publishing will have a funding option, and new works will be released to the market where we as creators can become influencers of a more peaceful, inspiring world.
All good stories begin with a revolution.
Vive la Story.
What is expected:
I am asking each creator to provide one monthly post, video or discussion around a provided monthly topic, and a photo to go with your post (photo doesn’t have to correlate but you do need to own the rights). I also ask that creators interact with three different posts or discussions on other artists’ pages a month. I also ask that creators boost one article or video a month (not just their own) on their social media platform. That’s one contribution, three comments, and a helping boost once a month.
- One post on topic
- Three cross-feed comments
- One Boost
What you’ll receive:
In return you’ll receive an artist/creator profile page and wing on which to interact with audience, and link readers to your own personal pages, and body of work (alternate websites, storefronts, Patreon sites, kickstarters, etc.) a quarterly web interview and bump about what you’re working on, what releases you have coming up and where you’re innovating with art.
You’ll also receive an advertising space on the website, and feedback and interaction from other creators meeting their three-comments cross-functional interaction.
Each creator will be given a login to Wisegoddess WordPress, with a creator page they can upload their posts on. When they submit for review it will be cleared by a second pair of eyes (it won’t be perfect, but it will get a second pass for typos and grammar).
Topics for the first three months are:
January = What does fair trade / sustainable art mean to you?
February = What does diversity in entertainment mean to you?
March = How can we unite as artists and creators to support positive change in a politically unstable time?
April = Open to suggestions moving forward
All creators are asked to acknowledge the Wisegoddess Code of Conduct and Ethics.
All Creators are expected to courteously participate in discussions.
All Creators are allowed to post more if they choose to, no obligation.
All Creators are allowed to plug themselves and their own projects and needs, but not more than a couple times a month. (The idea is to let your work and interactions become the plug to your links sites and needs)
By invitation only:
If you’d like an invitation to this round table community, please write in, and I’ll be in touch! I welcome any suggestions of creators and innovators you believe would be a good fit.
As a round table environment, I welcome any and all feedback and discourse. We might not always agree, but through positive friction, new creations, ideas, and story can be built.
The last week of March, 2017 I will send out a questionnaire to see if you’re still interested in participating. I’ll provide survey questions about what worked and didn’t and what we can do differently. Have we created a safe, inspiring trend toward a new social story?
If you’re interested, please let me know and I’ll begin the setup of your instructions and user account over the holiday season for a 2017 launch. I truly hope you’ll give us a try. It will be an amazing adventure and I would dearly love to have you along.
Thank you so much for your consideration. I look forward to hosting you on Wisegoddess.com.
Note: I originally wrote this article several months ago, when the anti-Muslim rhetoric was spewing from the political wagons. I didn’t publish it because I felt like I hadn’t really covered the whole frustrating mono-culture concept. I’m publishing it now, because as a society we can no longer continue the us-them disparities of any variety. We are at critical mass – entertainment and media have the power to unify, and they are choosing not to, leaving it to social media and pockets of resistance to the divisionary tactics. We can only fix this if we work together. This is my imperfect attempt to speak out and build forum for conversation. For further articles on diversity in entertainment please see “Know Your Diverse Audience“.
Lack of Diversity in Story is Hurting America
Robin Hood is one of my favorite stories, but of all the cinematic versions of Robin Hood in the last sixty years, my favorite is Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
As I’ve been struggling with how to start the conversations around the lack of diversity in entertainment, I recalled why I love this film more than other versions of Robin Hood.
Azeem, as played by the magnificent Morgan Freeman.
I was thirteen when I saw Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and to be honest, I was in purely for the pre-teen pleasure of my Christian Slater fixation and general appreciation of Kevin Costner, who’d recently wowed me in Dances with Wolves.
As a budding storyteller, I was prepared to walk into the movie theatre and be amazed by the newest version of the legend of a thief who robbed the rich to feed the poor. I hoped it would inspire new stories and adventures of my imagination – and I wasn’t disappointed. However, it’s taken me twenty-five years to articulate the reason this movie meant so much to me as a storyteller.
It was the first time I’d ever seen a prominent Muslim character portrayed in film. It was one of only a few times I could recall seeing a black man, portrayed as a powerful warrior of honorable, noble intentions and respect. It was the first time I’d seen a black character in the Robin Hood storyline at all, in fact; through every version of the legend, King Richard is absent because he’s fighting in the crusades, and there’s never a mention of who and what the crusades were in terms of the time period. It made perfect sense to include a wider, more scoped version of this story by bringing in an actual character to represent the diversity and breadth of the world, and bring anchorage to the events of the era in question.
Many times as I looked back on this version of Robin Hood I wondered, why hadn’t anyone added a Muslim before?
When I look back at how much I loved this story, I realize it’s not just this aspect, but good storytelling in general. It’s a little bit of cheese heaped on hubris, with beautiful tension and cinematography. The interplay between Robin and Azeem is still one of my very favorite character pairings. Through the whole movie Azeem refers to Robin as “Christian” rather than his name. Robin consistently reveals his ignorance, as with the telescope and other civilities, but the fact remains that he is trying to be noble and care for his people; a trait which Azeem admires and resonates with despite their religious differences. In fact, their shared reverence for humanity and human life is the key that allows their friendship to transcend cultural boundaries.
Frame of reference: I was living in Utah at the time the movie released, and we were just out of the Persian Gulf War. The film was likely in production at the time the U.S. declared Operation Desert Storm. There were many conversations at church at that time about the cruelty and darkness of the Islamic faith. It was a faith I had no frame of reference for at the age of thirteen, and I had very little in the way of resources in northern Utah to understand it better or do research. So when a movie came out with a lead character, a black man, which I also rarely saw in Utah, who was noble, strong, independent AND Muslim, I was struck for the very first time with the sense that I was not being told the whole story about the world and its people. It was the first time I’d heard the term “Moor”, and upon asking for books to explain it, I was met with confused glances.
At the age of thirteen, I knew I wasn’t getting the whole store about the differences in my world and the peoples outside my own community.
Prior to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the only warrior black men I’d seen were John Amos’s character Seth, in The Beastmaster 1982, and the cast of Glory.
My upbringing was quite sheltered, and many of the movies I snuck at friends’ houses or saw only the tv edited versions. Still, it was a very short supply of strong prominent African American character portrayals that didn’t portray them in entertainment as criminals or slaves, or afterthought casting choices. My childhood could be an outlier and everyone else presumably had a well-balanced upbringing of exposure to diversity and various faiths, but I suspect more and more based on the tension in our current social injustices, that my childhood was an unfortunate regularity, and that this lack of exposure to differences via story and entertainment has done us all the disservice of not “seeing” our fellow countryman as equal, which contributes to the racial imbalances in our current country’s events, as well as making it easier to dismiss the suffering of Muslim refugees and the devastation in other countries quite simply because we, as a predominantly white, Christian culture, have not “witnessed” otherness on the screen or elsewhere. Entertainment and media have bubbled the white privilege, the straight normativity, masculine patriarchy, and Christian moral assumptive classifications into “we” and everything else as “them”. Division and cultural breakdown is eventually a given result of such blindness to actual humanity.
I always knew I wanted to be a storyteller. I wasn’t sure which medium I’d finally settle into, but story was the only thing I ever knew for certain would be my future.
I knew Morgan Freeman from Glory, Driving Miss Daisy, and Lean on Me, in which he always played a character I couldn’t look away from. All of his acting choices offered a sense of comfort, reason and logic. As in, his theatrical choice to move one way or the other on screen, emphasize one line over another, or engage left or right, always seemed inspired by the logic of his character’s storyline.
As a storyteller I inherently trusted him, his work, his face and his voice, because I never doubted his use or expression of character. So the summer after Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, I realized I was not seeing the whole picture. I trusted Morgan Freeman’s storytelling enough to then distrust the reality of what the world as a whole was suggesting about Muslims, and also black peoples. His performance caused a crack in my current reality, curiosity and empathy seeped in. This is the most amazing, and powerful of storytelling gifts, altering a perception or understanding. Changing a paradigm.
Is this why so many minorities are passed over for parts? Is this why Hollywood whitewashes? To keep the paradigm from cracking? Food for thought.
As kids we’re reliant on the information offered to us, or what we have the limited access to dig up ourselves. In super white-washed Utah, home of the nearly mono-religious culture of Mormonism, a faith that prevented African Americans from holding priesthood until 1978, my only frame of reference for diversity was the sheer luck that I’d lived briefly in Arizona, and whatever movies or television I had access to that weren’t screened by my mother.
Sadly, because of the market conditioning and lack of diversity in movie and television, my general exposure to diversity, minorities and other religions were of thuggish, unethical and or inhuman characteristics. It was an unfair representation of the people of my world, even the people of my own country, and it remained my frame of reference until I left Utah and moved to Alaska.
My childhood did not have enough exposure to diversity to comprehend real differences, or get comfortable with the idea that my bubble wasn’t the only bubble people should or could live in. Such exposure and learning took time, travel and many hard conversations with myself to separate what entertainment told me about diversity, versus what the world really had to offer in human variety.
I’m still not good at it. I still struggle to think with better diversity. I still struggle to make unexpected character representation leaps in my own writing. But I realize now, I’m bored. BORED with any movie that doesn’t give the appearance of trying to be more representative to gender, race, sexuality, and so on. I’m BORED with the white faces on prime time television and the still prominent males in leadership roles of nearly every variety, while the token female or black leader gets added after the fact. I’m bored with market conditioning… so much so that I gave up my tv and haven’t felt the loss.
Operation Desert Storm ended four month before Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves hit theaters, and I never saw a strong Muslim lead, portrayed by a black man, just going about his normal non-violent business and humanity again. I have yet to see a Muslim portrayed in film that doesn’t rely on the religiosity of their faith as the focal point of their character and the purpose of their role in the story, which is completely ridiculous and only perpetuates the lack of understanding of the Islamic faith.
As for my first understandings of the disparity of representative diversities, Azeem, it’s been twenty-five years since a character that different, portrayed that respectfully, has held a prominent role in American cinema and entertainment. (Call out the ones I’m forgetting; it’s not intentional, I just really can’t think of one.)
We need better stories. Stories that represent us as a human race with more fairness and respect to variety. We all need more fulfillment of the depth, the facets, the nuances and multitudes of peoples, faiths, ideas, and experiences. Our humanity is incomplete without it.
Please help the story, the storytellers, the kids who will never know what else is out there if they don’t get to read it or view it, because their world experiences are potentially so limited to their geography and circumstances. Please help tell the stories that will allow kids who are different to see faces, and ideas that are like them portrayed well. Please help the others without voices to feel welcomed in their own towns by showing how well people can get along, even when their faiths are different or their backgrounds aren’t similar.
We need stories for all of us, for more reasons than can be accounted for in one pithy article. We are at a point of critical mass, change must happen. Entertainment and media have the first and best chance to teach, share and participate in a wider more inclusive forum – celebrating differences and honoring similarities.
Please feel free to call out books, movies, and shows that represent these principles, so others can look them up and check them out.
Please feel free to comment on your experiences of diversity or lack thereof in the American entertainment world.
Please keep all comments civil and respectful. We are all raw and tender from the violence in our world and the carelessness of words can do so much harm while exposure is so fresh. Be thoughtful to one another.
Comment forum below is now open.
‘Irises’ Van Gogh, 1889
How to Go Pro Like Van Gogh (HINT: It’s Not About the Money)
Does the word “professional” apply to Van Gogh? He didn’t make any money and he failed to become famous (even locally) in his own lifetime. Sure, his art fetches high prices now, and is well received by nearly everyone. But that’s his work, not him.
Van Gogh was a failure if your definition of “professional” is forever entangled with financial and popular success. Of course, if you think Van Gogh was a failure, you are a fool.
Your goal is to be a serious artist. To do that means that it is time for you to start treating your work as work. Below, I’ve outlined a few of the basic requirements you’ll need to “go pro”.
You Must Retain Amateur Status
The words “play” and “work” are not opposites, they are complements. No matter how seriously I am going to urge you to take your work, it should never stop being an activity you love doing.
Being an amateur has nothing to do with your paycheck, it has to do with your attitude and motivation. The original meaning of the word “amateur” did not mean “less serious”, or broke, it meant that you were a lover of whatever it is you are an amateur of.
You can be an amateur and not be a professional, but you cannot be a professional without also being an amateur. A professional who has lost their love of what they are doing is what I would call a hack.
Know if You Are Only a Hobbyist
Creating art because you like to do it is a perfectly valid reason: it is reason enough. We should give hobbyists far more respect that we currently do. A person with a few hobbies is far less likely to be living a soul-crushingly stressful lifestyle, will have healthier relationships, and will probably live longer than the rest of us.
That said, professionals and hobbyists are not the same. How can you tell which you are?
Some might start with the following question (which I hate): “If you were rich, and didn’t have to work, what would you do with your time?” The assumption being that whatever answer you give is what you should be doing with your life NOW, not waiting until you get rich.
Here’s a better question: “If you were dead broke, and you knew (for sure) that committing to your art was going to prevent you from ever getting out of poverty, would you still choose to do it?”
If you answer “yes”, then you are not a hobbyist, you are a professional.
Van Gogh made this choice. The result was the best work he was capable of producing. A professional finds this trade-off worth it.
Work as Hard as a Professional
The 19th century writer, Anthony Trollope, had a full time (non-writing) job. Still, he would wake up early every morning and write for three hours, getting 1,000 words per hour (250 words every 15 minutes, exactly). He got his 3,000 words in every day, no matter what. He was like a machine in his level of dedication to the hard reality of creation: you have to be consistent.
Prince wrote a song a day. Steven King writes 2,000 words every day. Anthony Burgess not only wrote 2,000 words a day, but also composed classical music during the evenings.
A professional artist treats their work like a proper job — especially when not being paid for it.
Work Ethic is Empowering
The fact that hard work and consistency are the fundamental predictors of your success (not financial!) as an artist is empowering. The mark of a professional is that this fact excites and motivates them.
Van-Gogh-self-portrait creative commons
Contrary to the myth, Van Gogh was wildly successful in his own lifetime. His worked his ass off every day. He doggedly worked to improve his craft and skill levels. He produced.
If you don’t find this fact empowering (or worse, find it sobering) then you’re a hobbyist — which is awesome, but don’t ruin your fun by making your art into work.
For a professional, the whole point is that you want this to be your work! So start acting like it.
The Myth of the Muse: No Excuses
Most artists are waiting around for inspiration. Without this mythical inspiration, they feel helpless.
What a writer would call “writers block” is a sham. There is no muse! There is no magical external force in the universe that will take over your body and force your hands to create.
Most days you will put in the work, and there will be nothing special about it. Some days, you’ll be hit with inspiration. The point is to be ready for this inspiration, lay the groundwork for it, and take advantage of it fully.
A Professional Artist Goes Public
An athlete who doesn’t compete is not an athlete. They may exercise, they may train, but I’m not going to call you an athlete until you enter your first contest. Once you do that, I don’t care if you did badly, I don’t care if you always lose, I don’t care if you will never win or make money or get a scholarship, you are a REAL athlete.
Similarly, you may be a horrible artist, you might produce some of the worst work in the history of your medium, but if you put your work out there for other humans to see, read, or listen to, then you are a professional artist.
You won’t magically build a large audience just because you set up a blog to put your stories or paintings on. But you will have broken through a huge glass ceiling most artists are too afraid to face: rejection.
Putting yourself out there is something only the tiniest one-percent of one-percent of artists are willing to do. The rest don’t have the guts to do it. Do you?
You may only have an audience of one, but that’s an audience. Hell, that one person may hate your work, but that isn’t relevant. What matters is that you had the guts.
‘Wheat Field With Crows’, Van Gogh 1890
Showing Your Work is Now Easier Than Ever
We live in a world where the middlemen of art (record labels, publishing houses, etc.) are quickly becoming more of a hindrance than a help. There was a time when they were the gate-keepers between the artist and the audience. That is no longer the case.
The internet has changed the landscape of art. If you want an audience, you can find one.
I suggest that you have a blog (not just a website) where you showcase both your work and yourself. Yes, use Facebook and other social media networks. But your blog is yours. And it will never matter if Facebook changes their algorithms or rules on you.
Everyone should exercise: it’s good for you and it’s fun. Yet, for a small minority, exercise isn’t enough, they want to be athletes.
Similarly, everyone should engage with the arts. Studies abound that extol the benefits to your brain and psychological well-being. But that’s not what you’re in it for.
To be a professional, at anything, let alone the arts, requires that you act like a professional.
- Work harder at this than you do at anything else.
- Don’t allow any excuses for why you aren’t practicing and producing daily (the muse myth).
- Put your work in front of others.
Repeat. It’s really not complicated. It’s just hard. Thankfully, it’s also the most fun you’ll ever have.
Now go lift something heavy,
Nick Horton, ‘The Iron Samurai’, is a poet and musician; was trained in mathematics; and is a Zen-Atheist. Clearly a weirdo.
Writing With Hand Tools
In the wood-working community, over the last few generations, there’s been a revival of the use of hand tools. The reasons are obvious once you hear them.
- Hand tools provide a connection with wood that is just not possible with power tools;
- Hand tools are safer (by a long shot);
- Power tools produce dust which is a known carcinogen;
- Hand tools only produce shavings which have a pleasant odor;
- Power tools are extremely loud (requiring you to wear ear protection) and will likely piss off your neighbors;
- Save for hammering, hand tools are so quiet that you can work in the garage in the middle of the night and not wake anyone else in the house.
Power tools certainly have a place, especially in commercial environments. But for many people, hand tools provide a more personal option that increases their sense of creativity and enjoyment.
Of course, there is another reason hand tools have become more popular: we’ve learned that technological advances are a double-edged sword. For every good that comes from a new advancement, we lose something. Often, we can’t predict what that loss will be until we’ve already felt it.
Writing Without Writing
Woodworking isn’t the only field where a revival of hand tools and a back-to-basics style can be of use. Artists of all kinds, especially many writers and musicians, have become mired in the myth that without their high-tech tools, there is no way they could produce.
For most of human history, writing didn’t exist. There were no books. Hell, no one had yet chiseled a poem into a rock.
That said, creative construction with words did exist. Poetry existed. Storytelling existed.
Writing is NOT synonymous with typing. Writing is far more than that. Writing, as a craft, consists of a series of steps starting with a creative spark and ending with a finished product.
In our prehistory, writing didn’t exist, but writers did.
Writing is a Craft
Saint Francis of Assisi said, “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
All artists are laborers first, craftsman second, and only then artists. Another way of saying it is that to be an artist, you must embrace ALL of what it means to be one, not just the “heart” bit.
Masters of all crafts (in art, engineering, sports, etc.) will constantly tell you that what matters more than anything is mastering the basics. And this process is made clearer when you strip away all unneeded baggage.
Tools like Word, or Scrivener, or Libre, or Office are useful when it’s time to use them. But an over-reliance on them may be a sign that you’ve become too far removed from the craft of writing as writing.
Let’s look at a few other possible ways to write.
Pen & Paper: The Forgotten Technology
The list of writers who used pen and paper in their process is long, and includes: Vladamir Nabokov, John Irving, Susan Sontag, Joyce Carol Oates, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Jhumpa Lahiri, even Quentin Tarantino among many others.
To one of our pre-literate ancestors, the combo of pen and paper would seem a miracle of technology (magic) — and so it is! To us, it seems arcane. How times change perception….
Beginning your writing process with more basic tools may provide the novelty and the variety needed to fan the flames of creativity. Worst case scenario: you get a hand cramp.
Vladamir Nabokov said that he only wrote 160 words per day, and that it would take him an entire day to get them right. His prose is so thick and meaty, that I often think he was a poet who tricked us into thinking he was a novelist.
He wrote those 160 words on index cards in pencil. Each would be labeled with a scene header or some other information. Then he would arrange these little scenes physically in front of himself, and have a tactile and graphical display of his work in progress.
Playwrights and screenwriters often use index cards to help them build up their plots. But Nabokov literally wrote the entire novel on them.
An alternative to a standing desk is to write standing at a white board (or chalk board, if you prefer). I do this as my first draft for everything from poetry to song lyrics to articles like this one.
It makes writing similar in feel to painting on an easel. There is something about being able to stand, walk around, and visualize what you’re doing that is liberating.
Markdown vs Word Processors (vs Typewriters)
You could say that a word processor is a very complex typewriter. Alternatively, you could say a typewriter is a crappy word processor. But I think both would be wrong. In fact, a typewriter and a word processor are fundamentally different, and belong in different categories.
A typewriter produces a finished product that is remarkably basic. You don’t get bold text, you don’t get different fonts or font sizes, you don’t get spell check, you can’t copy-and-paste.
A word processor allows all of that and more. Perhaps too much more! It’s a never-ending source of distraction, primarily because you are consistently fiddling with the formatting of what you’re writing rather than about the content of your writing.
To combat this without losing some of the rather nice benefits of technology (like spell check or copy-and-paste), many writers have moved over to using the markdown format in plain text editors. Markdown is now ubiquitous in academic writing, documentation for programmers, and other places where complex formatting is required eventually, but gets in the way of the subject at hand.
Markdown is like using a typewriter in the sense that if feels very plain and basic. On the other hand, you can then convert it to a Word Doc, or a PDF or whatever you need, without losing out on the ability to format the document.
Jodi Picoult said, “Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands.” It may also be caused by imprisoning yourself into having only one way of writing.
Writing is not typing, it is crafting with words. Typing may be one method that you use to write, but you should be careful not to restrict yourself exclusively to it.
Writing with hand tools is not necessarily safer than writing on a computer, but it may help you to be more productive. And if not, it will at least give you something to talk about.
Now go lift something heavy,
Nick Horton, ‘The Iron Samurai’, is a poet and musician; was trained in mathematics; and is a Zen-Atheist. Clearly a weirdo.
Should I Write Under a Pen Name?
By James Eickholt
How do I know if I should write under a pen name? This is a question no one can answer but the authors themselves. Almost everyone who writes knows that Ann Landers is a pen name, but what isn’t so commonly known is that two women wrote behind the name of Ann Landers. Did Eric Blair and Samuel Clemens write stories so dangerously radical they needed the protection of pen names? Would Joanne Rowling’s stories have been critically impeded if she hadn’t published under an abbreviated name? Is it unscrupulous for political activists like William Penn to hide behind the fake identity of a pen name?
Although my name is James, I’ve written several short stories and a few novels under the pen name Jake Elliot. That is like Elliott, but with only one ‘t’. I mention this because most people automatically add the extra ‘t’, and then they find some other person in their Google searches. I’m just not popular enough (yet) to have Google automatically redirect lost souls to my ethereal existence on the inter-web. Eventually, I’ll discuss my reasoning for taking a pen name but first, I’ll open this discussion reflecting on popular authors who’ve written under pseudonyms.
Johnathan Swift, although this truly is his birth name, originally released Gulliver’s Travels under the name Lemuel Gulliver, and his essay A Modest Proposal was also released under a pseudonym. In fact, most of his writings were penned under a pseudonym, and by their scathing anti-British intensities, he earned his recognition as an Irish patriot. Johnathan Swift’s writings against English hegemony drew sharp attention from the mock-Irish judiciary, who in turn attempted to silence Swift by accusing him and his printer of seditious libel for one particular work, the Drapier’s Letters. These weak charges were intended more as a point of intimidation and did not stick, only instigating more feverously outspoken attacks against British rule over Ireland. However, despite the many pen names Johnathan Swift used, everyone seemed to know the real author’s name.
Which brings me to both Samuel Clemens and Eric Blair—far more successful at being known as their false names, I often wonder if these authors needed to write under pseudonyms. Both England and the United States are societies claiming freedom of speech. Animal Farm is among my favorite books—in my top twenty for sure—and although ripe with political satire, was the story of pigs and sheep overthrowing a farm so eviscerating that Eric Blair needed to write under a pen name? What about 1984? Clearly a work of dystopian fiction, 1984 seemed more an attack against communist Russia and Joseph Stalin than a criticism of England’s governing style, even if the story is set in a reformed London.
Samuel Clemens wrote several scathing stories, oftentimes against the bigotries of the southern United States, and occasionally a good-humored jeer against the arrogant flair of the northern United States. Although The Adventures of Tom Sawyer seemed pretty light in its delivery, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn cut deep against the hypocrisy of free men who kept other men as slaves. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is another humorous story with pointed criticism, but was Clemens’s work so infuriating that he needed to write as Mark Twain? I realize that ‘mark twain’ is a boating reference from the time of paddlewheel riverboats, and Samuel Clemens loved the mighty Mississippi, but did he need to write under a pen name?
E.L. James…okay…I fully understand the need for a pen name, but what about J. K. Rowling? Rowling wasn’t writing bad erotica, but great children’s fiction. And, when Joanne Rowling did write under a pen name, she was relentlessly attacked by public opinion for her efforts. Personally, I say good for her. She proved to the world that not only could she write stories for adults equally as well as she did for children, but she could be successful doing so. However, I speculate (and there is no proof to this speculation) that someone who could make more money from Rowling’s name associated with those books leaked the true identity of Robert Galbraith. I could be very wrong in my suspicion, considering there is no privacy within our new world order.
Unlike E.L. James, my first work of fiction was published under my real name. I knew fame and fortune were right around the corner and realized that I needed some sort of cover—a sanctuary to protect me from the soon-to-be mob of clothes-tearing fans. After all, being an author is a lot like being one of the Beatles, or Elvis. But a closer facet of the truth, even more important than escaping the roving gangs of relentless fans and paparazzi if I was to ever become a household name, I first needed a household name.
Verizon knows me as James Eickolp, my driver’s license claims I’m James Eickolt (at least that’s close to the correct spelling), and even the IRS has misspelled my name since I first filed for a tax return in 1988, insisting that my name is actually James Eickart despite what my birth certificate and passport say.
Chuck Palahniuk is one of my favorite Oregon authors, but I still don’t know how to say his name. Even now, I need to go to my bookshelf to make certain I spelled his name correctly (which I didn’t). No one misspells Stephen King or George R. R. Martin. I needed a name like that—powerful, dignified, and easily recognized by the fifth-grade reading level that America boasts. So, Jake Elliot it was. And yet, I have been asked more than once why I write under a pen name. “It isn’t like you’re writing smut,” some have said. Perhaps fooling people into thinking my books are naughty will be my path to fame and glory as an author of fiction, and if so, at least Jake Elliot is an easily remembered name.
James Eickholt is a hybrid author who generally writes dark fiction with mildly sarcastic and ironic edges. Most of his stories are told under the pen name Jake Elliot. With one short film, eight short stories, and three novels to his credit, he considers himself accomplished in a grossly over-saturated market. When not writing twisted little stories, or working for ‘the man,’ James and his wife enjoy going on real life adventures. World travelers, they have visited Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria—all of these experiences stain and bleed into James’s writings—sometimes only as wisps and smudged fingerprints.