Online Writing

Okay, okay. I was wrong. I need a portfolio, and here it is.

Admissions of error are easier swallowed with a donut.

Admissions of error are easier swallowed with a donut.

After writing an entire post about not needing a portfolio, I made one. It’s a bit sparse right now, but it will grow as things get pushed out over the next few months.

There you go, haters. Now I’m off to smell the rain that has gloriously touched down in California today, curl up with a cup of tea, and forget all of you.

(Except those of you who need a writer. I’ll listen to anything you say.)

On another note, I’m currently enamored with this artist. Suits the rain quite well, or a drive at night on a lonely road.

2 ways to be more creative right now

I gave this as a speech recently.

I’m a freelance copywriter and every day, I work on projects that require me to think creatively. Creative thinking is a big theme right now in the world of work, and sometimes we have a hard time finding creative juice when we need it. So today I’ll share a few ideas on how to get unstuck.

Both of these have helped me in a slump:

  1. Messing up my desk.
  2. Wasting time going for a walk.

Let’s start with the first one:

  1.  Messing up my desk.

I’ll confess: my desk is always a mess. (Maybe my entire house actually, but we won’t discuss that.) I wrote this piece on a desk so messy that I had to carve out space for the keyboard. For me, a messy desk makes it easier for me to jump from lily to lily in the creative pond. Ideas don’t hide in boxes, but sit tucked away in jagged corners. A mess on my desk keeps my brain from becoming too comfortable with its surroundings.

And there’s a scientific basis for you logical thinkers out there. In one study, people were given 2 environments to complete a creative project. The first was a messy room–jagged lines, stuff strewn all over–and the second was a neat and tidy room–straight, clean lines, everything in its right place. The two groups sat in these rooms and collected ideas based on a theme.

When all of the ideas were submitted to an independent panel, who do you think had the better ideas?

The ideas from the messy room. They were rated as much more creative and innovative than the ones from the tidy room. That’s because we work more freely in an environment that encourages messy thought. We don’t restrict ourselves.

And a fun fact: Even Einstein seemed to know this trick.

  1. Wasting time going for a walk.

I’ve had some humdingers of delicious problems handed down to me from clients lately. One afternoon I was working through something so intensely that I realized I hadn’t taken the dog out for 8 hours. (Whoops.) To atone for my sin, I took him to the dog park. It takes about 20 minutes to walk there.

To be honest, that kind of break is a big waste of time for me when I’ve got a big push. But something happened to me on that walk: As I walked, I felt my brain relaxing. The structure of the problem in my head began to rearrange itself. Thoughts and ideas started coming faster and faster–so fast that I started talking to myself out loud about what was going on in my head.

(At this point, I put headphones on so I looked like I was on a call. I couldn’t be “that crazy lady” at the park.)

When I got back to my desk, my brain had somehow worked out the problem I had been struggling with for the past three hours. I looked it up and found that my experience is backed up by science:

This year, a Stanford University study found that the simple act of walking can boost your creativity up to 60 percent.

That means if you are working on a specific problem, you are measurably more creative while you are walking and for a short period of time after you finish walking. It doesn’t matter where you walk – people experienced the same effect when they walked around a drab office and when they walked on a green, tree-lined street.

So next time you’re on a desperate deadline, throw a few papers around the room and then waste some time by taking a walk. What happens in your brain might surprise you.

Creativity is a state of mind you can choose. Last year I had another big breakthrough in creativity, and you can read about that one here.

How to create meaningful art, or: Why I don’t want (too many) followers on my blog

If you are a creative type, you are probably disillusioned with the way the world works. Because the simple, accessible content that you create will become very popular, whereas the layered stuff will go almost unnoticed. We live in a world where Kim Kardashian’s butt has a Twitter feed and a video about cats jumping off tables get 25 million views and news articles written about it, and a tour de force novel is pressed out in the author’s blood-ink to an audience of crickets.

But as a creative, you will also find that the process of creating the most unpopular content is what will satisfy the deepest part of you. Because it’s the real stuff.

In my writing education, it’s been pounded into me that the most personal things are the most universal. To create things that are personal and universal, you must notice things that are real and have meaning. You must notice your surroundings, your own reactions to normal and unusual events, and what’s going on between the lines of everyday life. You must question why things happen.

Those observations and thoughts prep your brain for the creative process. And when you end up hitting that nerve of creativity and start speeding down tunnels, there is nothing like it – it’s the crack that will remind you why you were born. No cat video comes close to that, and I’d wager that Ms. Kardashian has never felt it. If you only focus on gaining an audience, you will never hit that nerve. Your audience will leave scrolling comments on your videos, exhibitions, blogs, and you will wonder why you do not feel fulfilled by your own creation.

It’s because real art is created without any audience in mind; it is created to satisfy the artist’s desire. This kind of art is rare and dangerous, because it has a high probability of containing original thought. And the entire world fights against that originality by pumping out more and more stupid, distracting content.

Like I’ve said before: Find artists who ignore their own fame. They are the ones who make art that you have to gaze into for a long time before figuring it out (if you ever do figure it out), and music with lyrics you can’t understand without listening three or four times. That is time spent, not wasted. You’re processing all of the layers, and it will teach you about the world or yourself. You are one step closer to creating things that are real.

And when you create things that are real, people will find you – whether you want them to or not. It will just take longer.

Beethoven said all of this even better. This is directly quoted from Project Gutenberg:

The world is a king, and, like a king, desires flattery in return for favor; but true art is selfish and perverse—it will not submit to the mould of flattery.

When Baron van Braun expressed the opinion that the opera “Fidelio” would eventually win the enthusiasm of the upper tiers, Beethoven said, “I do not write for the galleries!” He never permitted himself to be persuaded to make concessions to the taste of the masses.

And unless you post funny cat videos for a living, you shouldn’t either.

A short poem can make your day more beautiful

The last phrases of this poem… wow. Seen on The Writer’s Almanac. (Note: I have not requested permission to reprint this. I am simply spreading poetry into the world. My hope is that it will be seen as a good thing. Linked source for good will.)

In Blackwater Woods

by Mary Oliver

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver, from American Primitive. © Back Bay Books, 1983.

Rediscovering something you love

When I was fourteen and in ninth grade, I wrote a love story about a girl in love with a boy named Connor. In high school, Connor got cancer. The love story continued after his diagnosis, but Connor didn’t make it. He died at the end, and the main character went on with life, forever changed. She named one of her kids after him.

I barely remember writing the story, but I remember reading it years later and being surprised that I had written it because it was actually not stupid. It was not a story of a fourteen-year-old girl pining for a perfect boyfriend. It was about friendship, loyalty, and moving on. Sitting among my old journals and scrapbooks of cuttings from old magazines, I read it with no memory of writing it. When I read the part about Connor dying, tears welled up in my eyes. I cried at the end of my own story that I had written when I was fourteen years old.

I do remember one thing that happened after I wrote that story: a specific ninth-grade English class with Mrs. Reinfried. She was an older woman with short, curly hair and black-rimmed glasses. Your archetypal English teacher in high school. I waited until class was over and walked up to her desk. We didn’t really have a close relationship, but she always said I was one of the best kids in the class. I figured she’d be honest with me about my story.

“Could you read a story that I wrote?” I asked her, handing over the stapled pages.

“You wrote a story?” she said, a little surprised. I had done my homework and sometimes raised my hand in class, but that was about it.

“Yeah. Can you just read it and tell me if you like it?”

“Sure,” she said. “Thank you for asking me.”

The next day during class, Mrs. Reinfried kept looking over at me, and it seemed to me at the time, a little oddly. After class, she approached me and handed back my stapled pages. “Did you really write this?” she said.

“Yes,” I said, confused. Why would I tell her I had written it if I didn’t? It wasn’t for an assignment. I had nothing to prove.

“This is very, very good,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“No,” she said. “Jena, it’s very good. I have a hard time believing that you wrote this.”

I looked at her. “I wrote it. Last week.”

She stood there for a moment, looking at me, her eyebrows furrowed. She seemed confused, and I didn’t understand why. I wrote a story and asked my English teacher to read it. Big deal.

Looking back, I wish she had told me to submit that story. But we lived in a small town, smaller than a town where people submit stories or get published. We lived in a farm town, where kids go to 4-H after school and enter their sheep into contests. Not their stories.

I’m approaching thirty now, and I’m remembering all of the times that I was told that I was a good writer. I’m a passable cook, an okay friend, and a work-in-progress romantic partner. I’m a sometimes-good Samaritan and a loving, if sometimes politically incorrect dog owner.

But I’m realizing that I’ve always been a writer, and I forgot somewhere along the way. It’s something that I’ve loved since I could read – I wrote 5 chapters of a novel in third grade, about a girl who ran away to Rochester, New York. When I was 22, I wrote another 5 chapters of a novel about a girl in love with an enigma of an Indian boy. Now, I’m coming back to it all and remembering how much I loved it. This vortex of a blog that nobody reads is a blessing in that I can write mostly without editing. There are other avenues opening up slowly, though, and I’m glad.  

I’m remembering that I’m falling back in love with the first love I ever had – this practice, which I find to be almost as sacred as meditation. So when I go back to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, I’m going to dig up the story I wrote when I was fourteen, about another girl’s first love, and re-read it.

The story that most of us live

As a writer, I was disappointed to learn that there are no new stories. My original plan was always to write a story that would make me filthy rich – but more important, it would convince everyone on earth that we need to live differently in some way. My story would change civilization.

Cut me a break, I was twelve.

The point is, I can’t write a story like that. All timeless stories about humankind have already been written (and ironically, many of the writers made no money on them and achieved no fame during their lifetimes, and generally had terrible lives). They are the stories about falling in love, going on long journeys, and killing dragons. Coming afterward, writers are left to retell different versions of them. Once a generation or so, a story shoots to fame when someone successfully hides the fact that they’re copying something thousands of years old.

Except Fifty Shades of Grey. That’s totally original, 100 percent new material we have never seen before.

All stories – original or not – have something in common: there’s always a problem that seems impossible, but which the main character has to overcome – within herself, within society, or against nature. In children’s stories, the problem is straightforward: a main character has to fight a dragon. She searches for the dragon, fights it, and defeats evil. She returns to her city, which is filled with parades and rainbows to welcome her back.

Sometime after childhood – or for some people, during childhood – we learn that dragons are not as easy to fight as we thought. Our grown-up stories have to adapt to this grey area. A main character is attacked by a dragon on her way to work, but she is unarmed against it. She blacks out after a big blow to the head.

When she wakes up, she is perched a thousand miles away on the edge of a cliff. She looks down to see that she was half-eaten by the dragon and she has no map to get home. In that story, we watch her as she bandages herself, listen to her as she talks herself through her own healing, and see what she makes of herself in a world that looks different to her now.

She finds that after being half-eaten, she has much scarier things to fight than dragons. People stare at her mangled frame while she walks down the street. Her bosses don’t expect that she’ll be able to get things done with only one arm. She has to fight for everything she has, forever after.

It’s the same story of overcoming, but not by killing a dragon. It’s being forever changed by something, and finding a way around it so that we can go on. Living with our scars and bite marks, and deciding whether to show them to others or cover them up. It’s the story of redemption, the truest human story in western culture.

It is the story that most of us live. And because we are living it, we don’t always see the beauty in it. We just face the hardship, whatever it is, and move on. As a writer, that’s why it’s so hard to tell it in a new way: it is just normal. It’s the way life is.

That’s why there are no new stories. Because for thousands of years, we have spent much of our lives fighting to succeed after being half-eaten by a dragon in our past.