The Inner Critic Perspective #1: Maureen McGowan

In Support of the Inner Critic

When I chose “The Inner Critic” topic for this blog I thought it would be easy. I’m blessed with a particularly powerful one and figured I’d have a lot to say on the subject. But as the time to write this post drew near, and then the deadline came and went, my inner critic settled down on top of my head and squished out every ounce of rational thought.

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When he finally released me, (I feel sure that my inner critic is male), he left me bruised and yet with an urge to come out in his support. (Stockholm syndrome? Brain damage?)

Joking aside, I do think that our inner critics provide a valuable role—pushing us to be better, to expand our comfort zones, to learn more and improve. How can taking a critical look at our work or striving for improvement be bad?

It’s certainly beneficial to have some humility and self-awareness, to know that every word we write isn’t brilliant. It behoves us to understand that no matter how much we’ve learned about writing and storytelling, or how many books we’ve written, that there will alwaysbe more to discover, ways to improve. I firmly believe that a healthy inner critic can drive us to produce our best work.

Three cheers for the inner critic!

On the other hand… an overly aggressive inner critic can be stifling, soul crushing, and can keep us from taking the risk to put words down on paper in the first place, or to submit anything we’ve written for publication.

Hmmm…. Suddenly all my warm, fuzzy feelings for my inner critic have vanished.

Or maybe it’s that my inner critic served his purpose, but then outstayed his welcome. If my inner critic served me well when I started writing, perhaps I’m done with him now. It’s not that I plan to stop learning or improving—that part is great—but to be frank, over the years my inner critic has turned into a bit of an asshole.

I’d give anything to return to the heady days, early in my writing career, when my inner critic was tamer, or pretending to be, when he could be silenced by a great day of writing, by a light bulb turning on at a workshop, by a great talk with my writer friends—the days his voice could be extinguished by a request for submission or a contract offer. Those were the days.

Lately, none of those things can silence my inner critic. Not fully. Not even a contract. Not even a glowing reader review or accolade. No, my inner critic has grown so loud and oppressive he’s hard to shake off.

But I do remember when he was useful.

When I decided to write my first novel I knew I had a lot to learn, and being a good student I set out to learn all I could. I joined multiple writers’ groups across more than one genre, I took courses, attended conferences, and I joined a very serious critique group with like-minded women. We met weekly, tearing apart each other’s work without mercy and holding each other accountable to meet goals and submit work to agents.

Looking back, those days were marvellous! With each new discovery, each new skill, my confidence built, and I became keen to share my insights and knowledge with others. I shared what I’d learned with others in online groups, I conducted workshops at conferences, I judged writers’ contests and mentored beginners.

My memory of those days could be slightly flawed, but I do believe there was a time when I truly believed I’d figured this writing thing out. Mostly.

Yes, I knew there’d always be ways to improve, but I got to a point where I believed I’d learned enough to pass. Plus, I had a modicum of external validation (agents, contracts, accolades, letters from readers), enough to convince me I had talent and skill. For a while, my inner confidence was louder than my inner critic.

Oh, to return to those halcyon days!

As the years went on, as I left one agent and signed with another and then left him, too, as I published books, received a few minor awards, achieved what most would say was success with sales and reviews, my inner critic grew in pace with my achievements. In fact, I’m pretty sure that he grew faster than my success. Perhaps he feeds off accomplishment, always keeping a few steps ahead, prepared to cut me down to size without warning.

And with all my inner critic’s negative talk, at some point I started to believe I knew nothing. That I knew even less than when I started. Which is objectively nuts.

Ignorance is bliss, I tell you! It’s like the more I learn about writing and storytelling, the more skills I develop and the more books I write and publish, the louder my inner critic shouts that I know nothing, that I have zero talent, that I’ll never achieve my literary dreams.

Was it just a few hundred words ago that I came out in supportof my inner critic? What was I thinking? I must have been crazy. Stockholm syndrome indeed.

Time to face facts: my inner critic is an abusive jerk!

Working in a creative field requires a delicate balance. We creative types are often overly sensitive, easily crushed by criticism and setbacks, and yet criticism and setbacks are inevitable.

In the publishing world, rejection and disappointments are as certain as death and taxes. None of us needs an inner critic to feel bad about ourselves or our work, to push us to get better. There are plenty of external sources to do those things for us. (Any author who’s ventured onto Goodreads, without protective armour, can tell you that.)

Forget the thesis I stated at the outset of this post. I was wrong. Inner critics are the worst! The very worst!

Anyone know a good assassin?

 

MAUREEN MCGOWAN is the award-winning author of two YA series, and also writes romance as Mara Leigh. Maureen left a career in finance to pursue writing fiction. Aside from her love of books, she’s passionate about films, fine handcrafted objects and shoes. You can find her on all the usual social media places and at: www.maureenmcgowan.com

P.S. Her inner critic says this post sucks.

P.P.S. She’s not as oppressed by her inner critic as the above implies. Thank you for your concern, but no need to call the authorities. Yet.

The Creative Process Perspective #4: Joanne Levy

A rambling train-of-thought approach to describing how I do what I do.

So. Hi. Welcome to the inside of my head. It’s a messy place most of the time. But the cool thing is, somehow I manage to wrangle my thoughts and output stuff that is, while not perfect by any means, still coherent and, hopefully, enjoyable to read.

How does that happen? Short answer? Most days I have no idea.

Longer answer follows. You know, as I drink coffee and figure out what leashes my muse so I can fill pages that will entertain and delight.

Okay. *cracks knuckles*

The truth is, I am not a plotter by nature. This should become obvious as you read this post. I enjoy discovering the story as I write, which means I don’t like being constrained by things like outlines. Actually, I find that if I draft an outline, I then feel like I’ve already written the book. That completely sucks the fun out of the process for me. So yes, I’m a pantser who finds great joy in drafting.

I’m sure some of you reading this don’t get it and maybe even shook your head just then, and that’s okay. We’re all different, and that’s what makes it interesting when writers get together and talk about their processes. There are as many approaches to writing as there are writers.

But I digress. Time to get back to my process.

When I sit down to write a book, I generally have three to five plot points in my head that I will write to. That leaves a lot of room to flesh out the characters and story without having to do a lot of pre-work (I’m not a fan of research—I love going down internet rabbit-holes [read the reviews, you will not be disappointed] as much as the next person, but I’m not talking about getting sucked into silly and pointless YouTube videos, I’m talking Serious Research that is 100% accurate. Not my jam.).

The bad news is that often pantsers who do no pre-work can easily get stuck.

Like, I’ll sit there and ask my blank page, “Where does the story go from here?” Sometimes I don’t know. Like, really don’t know. How does Character A get from plot point Two to plot point Three? No freaking clue.

That’s when I get seriously stuck and can’t get words on a page. I’ll try and try but nope. Nothing’s coming. Some people call it writer’s block, but I’m not so formal, I just call it being stuck because it’s just a matter of not knowing what comes next.

Yet.

After writing for years, I have finally come to learn that getting stuck is nothing to fear or get upset about. That no matter how hard I try to grab that muse and force her to look at the blank page, that is not the way to get unstuck.

To get unstuck, I need to walk away. My muse needs to frolic in a meadow or go for drinks at the pub—I don’t really know what she does when she needs time away from the project. I just know that I need to set her free for a bit.

I have come to trust that my brain will whirr along in the background while I give it space. Go on a walk, enjoy a Paint Nite (I can’t recommend this enough for writers—it is a wonderful way to get out of the house and turn your brain completely off for an evening. Plus, at the end of it you have a piece of art that you can hang in your home—or not) or in very hard cases, take a few days and refill the well on a mini holiday where writing is NOT on the agenda. Go to the beach, take in some movies, visit with friends. Talk about stuff other than your current WIP.

In other words, get away from the keyboard. Once the muse has had her little vaca and is ready to work again, she’ll come back. She’ll poke you in the face at three a.m.. Or will pinch your butt while you’re in the shower with no way to write down her epiphanies. Probably, it’ll be at the most inconvenient time, like in the middle of a colonoscopy.

Point is, she will come back. Trust that. Trust yourself. That just might be the hardest part of writing.

Another common problem with being a pantser is that moment when I realize, “Oh *#@$ I’ve written myself into a corner.”

That’s when my writing turns into every knitting project I’ve ever attempted: inevitably, I’ll have to unravel rows and rows of work to fix that mistake that would otherwise always be a mark on what could have been a good project.

Every time I have to do this, I think that next time I’m going to outline.

And then I don’t.

No, really, I don’t. Even though I know it would make the writing easier and go more quickly.

But hey, what are you going to do? This is how I roll, and even though it’s more work in the end, writing from scratch is my joy.

And I totally need that. Because the business side of things isn’t always a joy. In fact, publishing can be the antithesis of joy. Sometimes publishing kills joy. Slaughters it and leaves it for dead on the side of the road.

I’ve had long stretches where I found no joy in my work. Before my debut finally sold in late 2010 (it was something like the fifteenth book I’d written and—I think—the fifth or sixth manuscript that had gone on submission), I hadn’t written for over a year. I was done with trying to get published. DONE. My heart had been broken so many times that I was over it and couldn’t bring myself to continue trying. I still had a few subs out there but was just going to let them shrivel up and die on the vine.

And then I got the call. SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE was going to get published.

Bam. I got sucked back in. I found the joy again. Only to have my heart broken again. And again. It still gets broken and then sucks me back in somehow.

So yeah, I need to give myself permission to write in a way that may create more work and is backward, if it gives me joy.

Because why else bother? If there is no joy, I may as well do something else. Seriously, anything else.

“But Joanne,” you may be thinking, “what about write-for-hire projects where someone asks you to write to their outline? You’ve done those, haven’t you?”

Yes, I have. I’ve done a few write-for-hire projects, but that doesn’t mean there was no joy in writing them. They can be really fun, actually. Working to someone else’s outline allows me to fill in spaces with my own creativity without the pressure of writing the outline myself. It’s a different kind of creative process and on a smaller scale, where the plot points are set out, and I work to give the plot voice and add humour.

Since I didn’t write those outlines, my brain didn’t feel like the book had been written already. Hence, I could still find joy in that drafting even though it’s slightly different.

But left to my own devices and writing my own stories from the ground up, I’m still a total pantser.

Hey, remember where I said this was going to be a rambly train-of-thought post? I was not kidding.

But you know what? It was fun to write, so there you go. Hopefully, you got something out of it too.

If not, my bio’s below—feel free to complain directly.

p.s. If you haven’t checked out the rest of this blog, DO. There are amazing perspectives on not only the creative process, but also rejection, and art and fear, with more to come. In a world where being a writer can be lonely and isolating, it’s nice to be reminded there are other like-minded folks. I also find they’re often hanging out on Facebook when they say they are writing. Myself included, but I blame the muse who was probably in the pub at the time.

A survivor of the corporate world, JOANNE LEVY now works from home, doing administrative work for other authors and creating the friends she wishes she had when she was a kid. She lives in rural-ish Ontario with her husband, Labrador Retriever, African Grey Parrot, and two cats, one of whom vomited during the writing of this bio. Joanne’s books include the forthcoming UNTITLED(not the actual title) from Orca books, CRUSHING IT, SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE, and  a couple written by her not-so-secret alter-ego, Tamsin Lane: YAEL AND THE PARTY OF THE YEAR and TARA TAKES THE STAGE .

Visit Joanne online at www.joannelevy.com 

The Creative Process Perspective #3: Kari Maaren

Writing on the creative process requires use of the creative process, and if there’s one thing that’s true about the creative process, it’s that it’s never there when you want it to be. Creativity is like a cat: when you’re sitting around with oodles of time, it hides under the couch, whereas when you have ten things to do and no time for creativity, it’s suddenly everywhere, sitting on your keyboard and looking at you accusingly. If you’re very, very lucky, it won’t throw up in your shoes.

The creative process is a simile taken slightly too far in an essay about the creative process. Is that creativity or desperation? How do you know if you’re being creative enough? If you ask yourself several questions in a row without answering them, will readers accept your creativity and go away without disparaging you on Twitter?

No! Shut up! The creative process can and must be quantified! It is logical. It is a locked box that is accessed with a single key, and the key is a logical key and not made of magic at all! Try This One Weird Tip, and you too can master the creative process! Stop thinking mystically. There’s nothing mystical about any of this. Similes are useless. Questions are open-ended. Write 500 words a day, and you’ll produce a 95,000-word novel in exactly 190 days. What are you waiting for? Write!

 I…I’m not sure that’s right. I mean…yesterday I wrote 2,694 words, and I don’t know why. And the day before, I wrote three words, and I still don’t know why. And the day before the day before, I looked out my window and saw the peach tree in my backyard, and I spent the next five hours standing there imagining out this entire epic fantasy series in which the peach tree was a pocket universe that had sealed itself into its own reality and now hosted a thriving population of supernatural beings, one of whom was a young wood nymph who felt too ordinary and just wanted to be loved. Is that invalid? Am I going to fail? Has this been done before? What if I’m not good enough? What if wood nymphs aren’t trendy right now? What am I going to do?

Everybody stop panicking. I just pantsed the hell out of a 140,000-word novel about time-travelling space monkeys. If I can do it, so can you. The trick is to start with a great idea, then surrender yourself to the story. Don’t get hung up on outlining or worry about research until the story has formed itself. You can always rewrite sections that don’t work.

Outlining is the only way to go. Without my outline, I am nothing. The story must be perfect and perfectly contained, with every element mattering and profoundly affecting every other element. I’ve read books by pantsers, and they tend to be loose and chaotic. A good story is taut, economical, beautifully structured. Writing by the seat of your pants will never give you that.

What is creativity? Is it a candle in the wind? A breath of fresh air in an inferno made of despair? Why is creativity? If we are not creative, how are we human? If we do not do art, are we really alive? When my soul does not soar on the wings of creation, shot through with metaphorical fire and stretched on the rack of hope, how am I not nothing at all?

Your questions are meaningless. Your imagery is hackneyed. You will never be a writer. You will never be an artist. There is no creative process. I read your heartfelt essay, and I know for a fact that I will someday be a millionaire, since if you can get published, anyone can get published. I could write a bestseller tomorrow because it’s all about figuring out the formula, and I’ve already done that. The only reason I haven’t published anything yet is that I am profoundly cynical about the whole process. It’s a rigged game. That book you love is garbage. Everything is garbage.

Guys? We’re getting off track here. Guys? I think I can do this, but how do I know? What if I write my story down and it’s no good? Maybe I shouldn’t write it down. Maybe I should eat chocolate while I’m brainstorming. I’ve heard that helps. Also wine. And carrots. Guys? Are you listening? Are you—

WHAT IS THIS WEBPAGE? WHY AM I ON IT? I WAS IN A BOOK. I FOUND THE WHEAT. I PLANTED THE WHEAT. I GREW THE WHEAT. I HARVESTED THE WHEAT. WHERE IS THE WHEAT? WHERE IS THAT LAZY DOG? WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THIS ESSAY? WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO MY BOOK? AM I AN EXAMPLE OF POSTMODERNISM? ARE YOU?

Don’t be postmodern. Everything is postmodern now.

Do be postmodern. Everything else is too restricted.

What even is postmodernism? Is it a creativity-killing crutch?

Yesterday, I saw a flower growing through a sidewalk crack, and I ended up in tears. What if I die tomorrow, with all my stories still untold? What if no one ever hears the things I have to say? I feel as if the stories are there, right there, but I just don’t have time to get them all out. There are so many that they choke each other off before they even get started. I need to write everything today because there may be no tomorrow.

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 The ice creeps

into my brain

into the depths

of everything I am

and the sea of stories

freezes solid

turns

from everything

to nothing

as I gasp

helpless

on the shore

Today, children, we are going to write a story. Does everybody have a pencil? No, Nigel, that is a glue stick, not a pencil. Okay! I want you to imagine you live in a castle with a magic bee! What happens to you and the bee? You have one whole page to answer this question! No, Nigel, that’s still a glue stick. Please put the glue stick away.

We are all creators. We must all create. Children know this; adults forget.

Creativity doesn’t pay the bills. Stop being so childish. Grow up and get a real job.

 My creativity is better than yours.

 My creativity is weirder than yours.

 My creativity is a more useful cat simile than yours.

I GROUND THE WHEAT. I MADE THE DOUGH. I BAKED THE BREAD. NOW WHO WILL HELP ME EAT THE BREAD?

 Guys? Guys? Guys?

 I think I have an idea.

 

Kari Maaren is a writer, cartoonist, musician, and academic who has no spare time. Her first novel, the Andre Norton-nominated Weave a Circle Round, was published by Tor Books in 2017. She has a completed webcomic, West of Bathurst, and an active one, It Never Rains, and she has produced two CDs, Beowulf Pulled My Arm Off and Everybody Hates Elves. She is fond of time travel and titles that begin with “W.”

The Creative Process Perspective #2: Star Spider

On the Edge – Making Art with Mental Illness

Every time I wake up in the morning, I am standing on the edge of a cliff. I don’t know if today I will fall and break my bones on the rocks below, or if I will take off and fly, way too high, so high that I touch the sun and it burns me.

Some days I get lucky though. Some days I open my eyes and take a step back. Or sit down and contemplate the view. Those are the days my mind allows me to work, to focus, to be productive. And on those days I feel the pressing drive to fit everything I can into all my waking hours, because I never really know what the next day will bring.

I’m bipolar. Recently diagnosed and finally, after a long experimentation period, properly medicated. But even though I am medicated and things are relatively stable, that doesn’t mean I don’t wake up every day on the edge of that cliff. Because nothing is perfect. Nothing is for certain when you live life always on the edge.

Our society has this grossly romanticized idea about mental illness and the arts. Especially with bipolar. It’s often considered to be a form of suffering that produces good, beautiful, meaningful art. It is often thought that depressive states make us see the horror of the world more clearly and therefore we can capture it more realistically. It is often thought that mania opens us to some sort of cosmic understanding that gives us access to worlds and ideas not seen by the average person. Mental disorders are often synonymous with creation, and these ideas are fed by reality. Looking at the history of writers and artists whose lives were plagued by mental illness, or ended in suicide, or who drank (or drugged) themselves to death in an effort to self-medicate, we do find genius. There is a definite pattern there. But the problem with patterns like that is that the causal direction is unclear. Are people with mental illness drawn to the arts? Or is it that mental illness breeds artistic endeavours?

In the grand scheme of things I don’t know that answering that questions really matters. What matters the most is the idea people hold on to that suffering = good art. And I can only speak for myself (although I have heard many artists saying this as well), but that is simply not true.

When I have fallen from my cliff, deep into the jagged valley below, there is no way I can conjure words or stories. I have tried. Sometimes, if I really force myself I can write a short poem, but it is usually biographical, and it is usually painfully self-centred. To me, depression is an egocentric state, and that does not engender inspiration. When I’m at my baseline, my most ‘normal’, I care wildly and passionately about people. I listen to their stories, I reach out to connect, I find myself wondering all the time about what makes people tick. This love of people inspires me, makes me want to continue at university (where I study psychology), and makes me want to step outside of myself and write stories about others. But when I am below baseline and in depression, all that changes. I can’t muster any of my natural curiosity, I can’t spare even a second to care about others. I collapse in on myself like a dying star, shutting out all other people to make time and space to heal myself. So to me, depression ≠ good art (and sometimes it means lack of art entirely).

Mania is a trickier beast though. When I step off that cliff and start to soar, I believe I can do anything. I’m brilliant, invincible, capable of great feats of art and science and wonder. I am connected to everything, moving at the speed of light, bubbling with ideas and insights that I can barely contain. It is deceptive. It hides all my self-doubt in a blanket of grand delusion. Sounds great, right? It’s not. When the mania strikes, although I have, at times, been productive, my huge ideas about myself sweep me away. They take me down random paths that run contrary to all the things I want to do with my life and lead me completely and utterly off track. And sometimes, most of the time, my creative goals suffer in the process. So when the mania entices me down a path I shouldn’t be going, I have to spend all of my energy trying to say no. It’s addictive, alluring, but ultimately mania ≠ good art (and sometimes it means lack of art entirely).

As humans, now and in the past, we have a strange relationship with mental illness. From believing it to be witchcraft, to bleeding people as a cure, to hanging them over snake pits to try and scare the illness away. It’s been a tumultuous journey to understanding. And it still is. The brain is an enigmatic and exceedingly complex organ. Every day people are working hard to uncover its mysteries, but we are still very much in the dark. Most medications and treatments are not quite understood. In a lot of cases we know that they work, but not why they work. And because of that lack of understanding there is a huge stigma built up around being mentally ill. A stigma that I find quite contradictory, because in many ways we ask our artists to remain ill in order to keep producing brilliant works. On one hand we deny the validity of mental illness and on the other we glorify it.

This has to stop.

And the only way I can see for us to dismantle the stigma is to talk about it. Create art about it. Open ourselves up as artists and as fighters, to allow people to see the truth. The truth that suffering ≠ good art.

As someone who has the privilege to be able to talk about this, I see it as my duty to do so. I study psychology and write fictional and non-fictional stories about my own struggles and the struggles of others. I’m lucky that I can speak out, as I know not everyone can. I am lucky to have found a way to live with my life on the edge, as I know not everyone can. I am lucky to be able to sit down and write these words today, as I know not everyone can. I’m lucky to have the support and the knowledge to be able to recognize my symptoms before they get out of hand, as I know not everyone can.

The edge of the cliff is a hard place to live, but I have made it my home and more often than not these days, I’m able to take a step back, or sit with my feet dangling below the edge, take a deep breath, and decide that today is not the day to fall or fly. Instead, on most mornings, I can decide that today is the day to make good, healthy, beautiful art.

STAR SPIDER is a writer from Toronto, Canada and has recently published her debut novel, Past Tense. Star’s stories deal with mental health and LGBTQ themes and she is a student of psychology at Ryerson University. Star’s short stories and poems can be found in many places including Grain Magazine, A cappella Zoo, Necessary Fiction, Flyleaf Journal, Gone Lawn & Apeiron Review and her books, blog and publication list can be found at: starspider.ca.

The Creative Process Perspective #1: Brian McLachlan

FOOD PROCESSOR

I’m not going to tell you the process I use to write a book, but the holistic approach I have to the creative lifestyle. I like to think of the process of writing a book like a recipe, and what I’m sharing here is more than that. It’s how I plan meals, cook, clean, and deal with what’s left. And head’s up, since I’m an illustrator as well as artist, my process involves sketching and doodling, which I hope will be illuminating for you as well.

Prep

Before you make up your own recipes, you have to prepare some that other people have made. That’s when you learn about story structure, giving characters distinct voices, etc.  The stuff that becomes second nature so you know how to preheat the oven to the right temperature, at the right time, because you know how that food is going to cook, whether you add saffron, dill, or fantasy-adventure for flavour.

When you know the basics, you start researching the specifics of your story. I do that with drawing. I look up pictures, or go to places where I can draw things I don’t know how to draw. This is a useful thing to do, even when I don’t have a project in mind. I sketch people at the cafe. Bone up on architecture for half an hour a day until I’ve added flying buttresses to my visual vocabulary.

Do writers do this? When you sit on the subway do you try to capture someone with a phrase “She huddled over her book like gargoyle trying to scare the main character away from danger”? Artists often start with quick gestures, move to 5-10 minute poses, and then have a three hour sitting to see all the details from a model’s pose or still life. I wonder if writing classes do the same, trying to catch those thousand words a picture is worth. Does describing a diner help you write a space ship’s mess hall? Maybe it’s worth a shot?

So that’s the first type of prep drawing I do: sketching. The second kind of prep drawing is doodling. That’s where I draw things I already know how to draw. I’m either refining them to where I like the shapes and lines I’m using, or combining images in new ways. Is it funny to draw a centaur that doesn’t have a human torso, but another horse torso on top? What could is mean? Would it fit in to any of the dishes I’m working on? My sketchbook is full of these weird experiments, which help me find my voice.

I do this with words too. When I’m trying to crack a punchline, or build a plot for one of my shorter comics, I write down a topic, and then brainstorm related words (or images) in different categories (living things, things, places, phrases and actions). Then I look for opposites (as that’s where the humour often lies, like a gorgon with Mongooses for hair). I have a doc file full of lists of things that might help me if I need a list of sports, monsters, or character motivations. These are great when I’m hitting a mental roadblock and there’s a deadline. I’ve written the same characters for Owl Magazine, every month for over a decade. This method gives me the power to come up with a new take on spring break, Halloween, or whatever.

I doodle with words in quiet moments, like when I’m waking up, or walking to pick up my kids from school. When I was lying quietly with my toddlers, trying to get them to settle into a nap. When I’m riding public transit. I doodle with pictures while watching TV without compelling visuals, like Daily Show or Jeopardy! These are the moments to daydream or rework loose ends. That way, when I get back to the computer, or the drawing tablet, I’m ready to go.

The exception to that rule, for me, is at bedtime. I don’t want to think about my life, or my work, because it will keep me up. I won’t get to sleep, and my writing and drawing will be off the next day. When I’m going to sleep I try to visualize things that are far removed from my daily routine. I think about video games I played 20 years ago. I think about walking through a forest I visited once every year in my twenties. Thinking about my work is a recipe for disaster.

Right before bed is actually a great time to read. It helps settle the mind before bed, in a way that screen time doesn’t. It’s good to be reading for fun, or to be low-stress researching for your next possible book (assuming your book isn’t about grizzly unsolved murders or something unsettling). It’s a great time to catch up with my peers’ efforts and know why I want to recommend their books.

Into the Kitchen

Because I’m thinking about my work while I’m doing other things, when I sit down to work, I know where to start, without procrastinating. The new recipe is coming together. It might be revisiting a tough chapter that I had an epiphany about. Or starting off from the last sentence/brush stroke. Or it might be a whole new project I’m getting down on screen, to get it recorded. Like food, I have to keep deadlines in mind. I can be working on baking a cake for the big party on the weekend, but I still need to make dinner tonight. Sure I want to work on my book, but I need to hit my monthly magazine deadline first. You have to keep yourself fed.

I work from home, and am basically a stay-at-home dad and husband. So I have nice breaks throughout the day. I have my moments of flow, but when the writing hits a wall, I can take that time to sweep, or throw on a load of laundry. Taking a few moments away from my work gives my brain a chance to regrapple the problem, while I get something else done. Then I come back to flow. Later, when the laundry goes off, it reminds me it’s been an hour, and I should at least be getting out of the chair. Then right back to where my mind left off.

To the Table

Once a story is done, like a good meal, it’s good to let it digest. So I let it sit for a while, before I think about sharing it with someone. There’s an artist’s trick where you hold a mirror up to your drawing to see with new eyes, to see where your proportions are off. It’s the same way writers read sentences backwards to catch mistakes. Time preforms the same function for me with stories. While that meal is digesting, I’m already working on the next meal though. It might be a light breakfast, like a short story, blog post, series of one-panel gags, etc, or it might be an ambitious 6-course dinner. I think each person has their own metabolism. Some people will do a new webcomic every day. Some will hole up and write an epic novel over years. And then do it again. Some mix it up. I don’t think there’s a writing diet that’s healthy for everyone to follow. Personally, I find I need to mix it up a bit.

In fact I’m usually working on several pieces at the same time. I’m writing my monthly comic. I’m sketching out some submissions for The New Yorker or the Nib. I’m working on my book project for my agent or publisher. I’m tweaking my power point after my last school presentation. Having my fingers in lots of pots helps keep the money coming in, the brain active, my name out there, and allows me to leave a momentary writer’s block to do something else worthwhile.

Speaking of school visits, they’re a great way to try your recipes out on some eager eaters. Tease a story idea, or a drawing and see if people salivate. Find out what books others are reading so you know how to compare your meal when its ready. Get out and meet your potential fans and cheerleaders, while you are giving them the tools to become the next generation of creators. It’s wonderful to pass your knowledge along to the hungry.

Aperitif

When I don’t have a deadline anymore, sometimes I take a day just for myself. Get a massage. Play a video game. It feels a bit like cheating to me, but I can enjoy it when I know there’s nothing super important on my plate anymore.

Sometimes when a story is done, either published, or definitively passed on, I can reuse the scraps for the start of the next meal. Or maybe not the start, but as a flavour, like using the duck fat for some fries.  Some of these ideas need to be like stock, boiled down to what’s the key element that you want to work with. I think about why an idea struck me, and why I want to reuse it, and how I can. What about it is good? What was problematic? Is there a kernel of a story in there? It’s easier to reuse if you’re writing in the same genre, but you might be able to fit a French bread into a Mexican dish.

In our home, I get breakfast and lunch ready for the kids. I make most of our dinners. But some meals I eat are just for me. And the same is true with my writing. Sometimes it’s because I plan it that way. Sometimes it’s because it got burnt and we have to order in pizza. Not all the stories you’ve put your heart into will be shared with others. Their sales may flop. They may never be published. That’s okay. Some endeavours are just for you, and keep you healthy, sustain you. I try not to worry about rejections from agents, publishers, or the public. Famous and fantastic authors have had their books in the bargain bin, or their desk drawer, and so will you. The real end result of cooking is making poop, and you have to be ready for that outcome as well.

BRIAN MCLACHLAN is a cartoonist who writes the “Alex and Charlie” strip for Owl Magazine. He’s also done cartoons for Nickelodeon, The Nib, Dragon, and The New Yorker Magazine. His book Draw Out The Story: 10 Secrets to Creating Your Own Comics, received an ILA Nonfiction Award, a JLG Gold Medal, and was a Silver Birch finalist.

Web: brianmcl.com

Twitter: @mclachlanbrian

Switching Gears Perspective #4: Melanie Florence

Switching Gears from Real Life into Creative Mode

When the deadline loomed for this blog post, I have to admit that I had trouble switching off mom mode and stepping into writer mode. With my kids home from school for the summer, I try to spend as much time with them as possible. Let’s face it…there is going to be a time when they don’t want to hang out with their mom any more. So, leaving a pile of unfolded laundry and a sink full of dishes to open my laptop while my daughter plays on her iPad should have been simple.

It wasn’t.

I tried to write. I did. But Josh wanted lunch. Taylor wanted to watch The Office, so I ended up engrossed in an episode for a while. The puppies needed attention. I wanted a snack. The mail came and begged to be opened. Taylor absolutely NEEDED me to do her dance to The Office theme song with her. The point is, there was always SOMETHING that I could be doing instead of writing this blog post.

Switching on the creativity when you’re in the midst of real life can be next to impossible. How do you recharge the creative batteries when you’re trying to juggle your family, your home life, a day job…all those balls that every writer struggles to keep in the air?

  1. I find that when I’m stuck in a ‘real world rut’ and can’t turn the creativity on, sitting down with a well-written book and losing myself in the kind of writing I’d love to be producing myself, absolutely helps. Some of the books that have helped me recharge lately are The Agony of Bun O’Keefeby Heather Smith, Maudby Melanie Fishbane, Punch Like a Girlby Karen Krossing and Prideby Robin Stevenson. Spending an hour with a good book really inspires me to get back to my own writing.
  2. Meeting up with writer friends. This is a new one for me. I’m an introvert by nature and tend to stick to myself most of the time. But there is nothing that inspires me more than sitting down with some writer friends and tossing around ideas, hashing out plot points, talking about books and how freaking HARD it is to write them! No one gets it like another writer. And no one can make you want to write like other writers. Because your writer friends remind you why you do this to begin with. They challenge you to be better and to take risks with your work. And writers are just fun to be around!
  3. Getting Away from It All. Sometimes you just have to walk away from everything. Okay, maybe not your kids…but that load of laundry you’re in the middle of or the errands you wanted to run or that huge, incredibly long To Do list you’ve been putting off. Sometimes you need to leave it and find a quiet place where the dishes are staring at you, daring you to wash them. Having a place to write that isn’t in the middle of the household chaos is vital. I have a studio in my backyard. My friend Lisa Dalrymple has her Plotting Shed. Other writers have a dedicated office or even a corner of a room where they can sit down and get to work without distractions. Coffee shops work for some people…really anywhere that you can go to forget all the other things you could be doing and FOCUS on your writing would work.

Those are my top three ways to recharge the creativity batteries and get back to work. Sometimes I just have to remind myself that writing is my job. It’s my career. And my career needs to be prioritized near the top of the list.

MELANIE FLORENCE is an award-winning writer of Cree and Scottish heritage based in Toronto. She was close to her grandfather as a child, a relationship that sparked her interest in writing about Aboriginal themes and characters. She is the author of Missing Nimama, which won the 2016 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, the 2017 Forest of Reading Golden Oak Award and was a finalist for the 2017 First Nation Communities READ award. Her most recent picture book, Stolen Words, won the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award and was given a starred review by Kirkus, who listed it as one of the best picture books of 2017 to give readers strength. Her other books include Righting Canada’s Wrongs: Residential Schools and the teen novels He Who Dreams, The Missing, One Night, and Rez Runaway.

In her spare time, Melanie watches Doctor Who and Harry Potter with her daughter, discusses the DC vs Marvel Universes with her son and makes her husband sit through scary movies with her. She shares her home with her family, their two dogs (Henry and Daisy), two cats (Shadow and Oreo) and a backyard that seems to constantly attract wildlife. You can find her at https://www.melanieflorence.com or on Twitter @mflowrites

Switching Gears Perspective #3: Eternia

CULTIVATING CREATIVITY

 Spotify has changed my life.

I have discovered so many new and inspiring artists through the popular music-streaming app.

Perhaps more importantly, I can curate a mood. I create playlists with specific mood objectives in mind. Playlists to work out to, to unwind with, to reminisce over the good ‘ol days, to wake me up and get me going in the morning, to crawl into my innermost feelings, to connect with the Creator… the possibilities are endless! Which is why my playlists keep growing.

One of my playlists I’ve named: “Makes Me Wanna Spit.”  If you’re a rapper, as I am, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. This Hip Hop playlist is high velocity lyrical verboseness. The beats are banging, the lyrics are intelligent, the flows are complex, and the BPMs are well over 95. In layman’s terms: if Rocky needed motivational music to run up those steps, this playlist would be it!

I use this playlist sparingly and intentionally. The “Makes Me Wanna Spit” playlist is a tool I use, in a kit of many, to cultivate my creative garden. The seeds are creative ideas planted inside of me, as yet unnamed and unformed.  I use this particular tool when I want to get into the songwriting zone, when I wish to loosen the words stuck below the surface and encourage them to take root and burst through the soil.

My playlist is one of many tactics I’ve developed over time to nurture my creativity.  The methods are tailor-made for me, so they probably wouldn’t work for someone else. However, over time I do think I’ve stumbled across some over-arching principles of cultivating creativity that can apply across the board of creative personality, genre and medium.

photo credit: Silk Kaya

Principle #1: CULTIVATE SPACE

“Be still, and know…” – Psalm 46:10a

There’s something beautiful about an uncluttered mind. It’s where creativity is born and problems are solved. But in order to get to this place of stillness, the mind needs some tidying… or spring-cleaning depending on how long it’s been. We need to clean out our mind’s junk piles – yes that includes the endless to-do lists we ruminate about – in order to create space for other ideas to take root and grow. Let’s call this weeding the garden.

Your space-making process will look different than mine. But usually it involves slowing down, being present, and engaging in a low-stimulation activity that is your version of meditation. This could be working out, running, cycling or hiking. It could be a long soak in a hot tub, or a luxurious afternoon nap, or lying on sand near the ocean, or on the grass in your local urban park, looking up at the trees framing the sky. Whatever method you choose, it should be a de-stimulating activity that allows you to slow down and pause. Because interacting with others is inherently stimulating, it will most likely require alone time.

Many people say they don’t have time for this, while laughing at the thought. That’s a sign that going, doing and checking off “to do” lists is the kryptonite to their super powers.  Most of these folks may be trying to say they don’t know how to do this.  Cultivating space requires discipline and intentionality. It means scheduling it in your calendar and then when a scheduling conflict arises learning to say, “I have a pre-existing commitment.” If you were about to run a marathon, you would schedule time in your calendar to train for it. If you didn’t plan for that time to train in advance, and then got too busy and didn’t train at all, the marathon would be a disaster… or more likely you would drop out of it at the last minute. Cultivating space is a discipline that your creative self requires to flourish. You are “doing” something.  You are tidying your mind. You are weeding the garden in order to make space for beautiful plants to grow.

IMG_5845 (1)
photo credit: Silk Kaya

Principle #2: CULTIVATE YOUR CURIOSITY

“Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people” – Leo Burnett

Once we have weeded our creative garden, it’s time for nutrients, water, and sunlight!  This is the fun part. Imagine you’re an ambassador of a beautiful country, and your job is to show foreigners the cultural beauty of this place. It’s food, music, visual art, dance, fashion, authors, poets, architecture, nature, people… you can’t wait for others to experience all the aspects of your homeland that make it a place you’re proud of.  Well, we are ambassadors for our creative selves! Our ideas and projects don’t develop in a vacuum. The water, sunlight and nutrients they require to grow can be found – in part – through our curiosity. It’s easiest to distill this down to senses: what smells do you love? What tastes? What is music to your ears? What is a feast for your eyes? What makes your body feel free? What brings joy to your heart? And how will you know what the answer is to any of these questions without seeing, tasting, touching, smelling, hearing and experiencing a lot of different things?! The answer holds powerful tools you can use to inspire, develop and grow your own creativity.  Curiosity begets creativity.

I can only explain this phenomenon practically. Have you ever been to a concert that makes your spirit soar? These concerts are the kind that makes me want to make music. Or have you ever had such a stimulating and inspiring conversation with a friend that you leave the conversation with more energy than you had going in? These conversations are the kind that develops my ideas. You ever look at a stunning scenic landscape in front of you, and out of nowhere you’re moved to tears? These are tears that inspire poems, or a painting. These are the kind of sensory experiences I’m encouraging you to cultivate.

There are more subtle versions: reading a compelling book on a topic you know very little about. Playing with children and listening to their conversations with each other. Watching the birds and flowers closely on a walk. Keeping an eye open on public transit for acts of kindness that transpire between strangers. Striking up a conversation with a stranger! The list of new sensory experiences to explore is endless, quite literally.

Cultivating your curiosity requires being present, which is why the first step of cultivating space and slowing down is so foundational. This step also requires stepping outside of your comfort zone and trying new experiences. The beautiful sunset may have less of an effect on you if see it every night from your bedroom window. Any exciting sensory experience can be dulled with repetition; it should feel fresh and brand new, not predictable or dull. If you normally go to the ballet, try going to a local salsa, merengue and bachata night! And, like I mentioned with my “Makes Me Wanna Spit” playlist, it’s important to employ this tactic in moderation. Just like too much water or sun can kill a plant, overdosing on any good thing can reverse its’ effect and dull its’ impact.

Principle #3:  CULTIVATE YOUR SPIRIT

“I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” – Louisa May Alcott

Our little fledging plants in our creative garden have now been protected from weeds, and nourished with nutrients, water and sunlight… but what about their roots?  What is a strong spirit? How do we develop it?

I believe our spiritual life is intrinsically and holistically tied to every other aspect of our physical, emotional and mental well being, just as the inner core of the earth is just as much a necessary part of its’ whole as the outer crust, terrain, and ozone layers.

How we pursue and practice our spirituality is very personal, however I believe it’s important to fervently pursue and practice this discipline most of all… especially as creatives! Creativity is not born of thin air. We didn’t plant the seeds in the soil, we can tend to them, but they were already there. Who or what planted them? And to what do we owe this great honour and responsibility of tending to them and watching them come to fruition? We can’t give all the credit to ourselves; it’s not ours to give.

The most impactful creative works transcend time, race, class, language, sexuality and religion. There is something ethereal, mysterious and supernatural about it all.  And – in many cases – the most powerful creative works are born of hardship.  It is through hardship that we cultivate fortitude of spirit that translates in our creative works and ultimately blesses others. From this perspective, we must approach less than ideal circumstances – from the merely uncomfortable to the terribly tragic – from a position of discernment and expectancy. Plants strengthen and learn to bend, not break, when they weather the storms. These trials are the necessary gems required to cultivate our soul, and as a by-product our creative works, if we allow it.

How do we ‘allow’ it? First and foremost, if we don’t have a spiritual practice to begin with, when storms hit we will have no tools to weather it and no anchor. Also, we can allow it by feeling and expressing honestly through the anguish, not suppressing. By being transparent and inviting others to bear the burden with us, even when it takes swallowing pride. Emotional pain is often an indication of an illusion dying, so maybe – through our discomfort – we can ask ourselves what illusion we need to let go of, because it no longer serves us. And just like the plants in a garden never think to ask, “why is it storming? I don’t deserve this”  (because it would be silly to think a plant has a say in weather cycles, and that storms exist to punish/reward plant life)… neither should we.  There is humility and awe imbued in the realization we control far less than we think we do, and that we are not the central character in life’s narrative. Tragedies and trials highlight this reality. Seeking a deeper spiritual awareness and pursuing a spiritual discipline can bring us to the Source of Life, and a peace that passes understanding when we surrender our control to this Source… even our creative control!

Space, stillness, curiosity of the senses, and a firm spiritual foundation: these principles rely on each other.  Cultivating one without the other would be like building a chair with three legs. Likely, I’ve missed other principles; this is by no means an exhaustive list but simply a starting point.  These are principles that have been really effective in cultivating creativity on my journey, and the journeys of others I admire. I look forward to hearing how these principles work for you, or what other principles you employ.   It’s the customization that makes it exciting.  I don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to anything, and certainly not our creativity. Ultimately, based on your own intimate knowledge of self, you get to fill-in-the-blanks and curate your own personalized “Rocky-Running-Up-The-Steps” playlist of victory!

SILK KAYA is a curator of ideas and words. In the past twenty-five years she has done this primarily through the medium of music, as the 2x Juno-Nominated and Polaris Long-listed Hip Hop Artist Eternia.  However, she was performing and writing poems, essays and stories long before she penned her first rap verse.  Entering her fourth decade in this creative life, Silk Kaya is looking forward to challenging herself by pursuing new and unfamiliar pathways in music and media for her ideas and words. You can find her at TheRealEternia.com.

 

photo credit: Silk Kaya