Jaye Wells

Tag Archives: Creativity

Craft Thursday: Creative Play

Creativity is intelligence having fun

One of the interesting things you realize when you hang out with creative people is that most creatives are not one-dimensionally creative. For example, many of the writers and musicians and painters I know also love to cook. A painter I know loves to sew and a musician friend is also into photography.

I mention this on Craft Thursday because it’s important for us all to remember that being creative is not a means to an end. Creativity is a way of life. 

It’s important to remember this because there will be times when you feel burned out from writing. Sometimes this burn out is simply resistance. Other times, it’s your subconscious telling you it needs some time to replenish itself. Ironically, one of the best ways to refill your creative well is to be creative–just in a different way.

I was complaining to my husband the other day that every time I sit down to write, I hit a wall. I have about five books waiting to be written, but when I try to put words to paper I freeze up. Mr. Jaye reminded me that I’ve just come out of a pretty intense period of change. He suggested I take a break for a little bit, and give myself permission to do things for fun.

The truth is that at this point in my career, anything I write carries a lot of weight behind it. The weight of expectations, the weight of income, the weight of defining myself in my industry, etc. So I decided that instead of just retreating into Candy Crush or making myself crazy by investing too much energy in the election drama, I needed to be creative in a different way.

That’s when I remembered how much I used to love to paint. It’s been probably fifteen years since I’ve taken a painting class or done a project for fun, but that’s okay. I’m not doing this to prove myself to anyone. I’m doing it to inspire myself to be creative. So out came my old portfolio and my old black tacklebox filled with tubes of paint, brushes, sketching pencils, and those marvelous gummy erasers. Something sort of magical happened when the scent of the supplies hit me. I got excited.

I went to the art store and bought a kit to paint a cheesy painting of a water mill next to a river. It’s going to take me a long time because I’m an incredibly bad sketcher and the painting is pretty detailed. That’s all right. It’s fun to lose myself for an hour or two sketching tiny leaves and a water mill. That’s call flow, my friends. Flow is where the magic happens. 

The other great thing about this project is that its visual and tactile. Writing is such a cerebral practice. You’re in your head so much that sometimes it’s hard to find your way back out. With my painting, it’s nice to get my hands dirty and see the picture coming together as  I work.

Anyway, my point is that f you’re finding yourself stuck, don’t beat up your muse (or yourself). Try switching gears a little. You don’t have to be good at your other creative pursuits. That’s not the point. Being creative is about indulging your curiosity and your sense of play. You don’t have to do “serious” art either. Try some subversive cross-stitch or try a new recipe for dinner or create a vision board using pictures you cut out of a magazine. Some people might call these projects silly, but those people do not understand how critical play is to the creative mind. So ignore the haters and go try something new. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself itching to write again too. And the best part? Being creative is way more fun than beating yourself up for not always being a word machine.

Writing should be fun sometimes, remember? That’s why you started doing it, right? Creative play helps you get back to that beginner’s enthusiastic mind.

Question: What other forms of creativity do you do besides writing?

 

Craft Thursday: Creator vs Consumer

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Are you a creator or a consumer?

It’s a question I think about a lot these days. So much of our energy seems to be focused on consuming, chewing each other up and digesting whatever is offered without thought or principle.

I’m scared. I’m sad. I’m angry. I know this is because I have spent too much time lately consuming the garbage I’m seeing here and elsewhere online and in the news. As the old saying goes, “garage in, garbage out.”

I don’t want to be angry or bitter. I don’t want to believe that this world is unsalvageable or that people are not basically good. I don’t want to lose hope.

Yet, I know the source of hope always lies in creation. Luckily, my life centers on being creative and sharing those creations with others. I know magic exists in this world and in people because I have seen it over and over through stories and paintings, architecture and songs. I have seen strangers be kind. I have seen miracles in the mundane. I have seen humility in the magnificent.

Even if you’re not “a creative” you can still foster a positive creator mentality in your own life.

Creator Mentality means that you:
do instead of complain
make instead of destroy
build instead of tear down
share instead of hoard
foster curiosity instead of suspicion
compliment instead of insult
think instead of obey
build up instead of tear down
join communities instead of factions
are open and present instead of closed and anxious

Imagination, progress, change–these are the vehicles of creation. The fuels of this miraculous engine are curiosity, delight, and enthusiasm.

It’s a choice you have to make every day. Some days it’s harder than others. We’re not perfect, but we have potential.

Today, I choose creation. I hope you will, too.

Craft Thursday: Restriction and Creativity

Hey, kids. I’m working on revisions of the secret project (I hope to announce it soon!) today, so we’re going to watch a movie instead of me doing  along post berating you for doubting yourself.

A while back I saw a documentary that followed The White Stripes on Tour, called UNDER GREAT WHITE NORTHERN LIGHTS. The entire thing is worth a watch, especially if your’e a fan of the band (which I am). But this segment below stuck with me because it speaks directly to the creative process and applies to almost any art form. Enjoy!

Craft Thursday: Trust the Ghost

Writers are a superstitious lot. A lot of us won’t admit that in public, of course. We want you to believe that we are masters of our destiny and that all of our talent was honed through hard work and inherent understanding of our creative drives. That’s bullshit, mostly.

When people ask us where our ideas come from it makes us feel awkward and uncomfortable. We don’t know. Not really. A lot of it, I think, simply goes back to how our brains are wired. Your brain might be wired for accounting or music or serial killing. Mine is wired to take disparate ideas, shake them up and spit out something newish. It’s also wired to love the dip, dive and swirl of language. That’s why I have some talent for telling stories, instead of, say, painting.

So, yeah, wiring is a big part of it. So is experience. I was raised by avid readers and book sellers. Intensely curious people who loved to sit around and spin yarns around the dinner table. I was exposed to art and myth and symbol and history and the fine art of gallows humor from a young age.

But beyond wiring and experience, there’s another element that many of us don’t like to talk about: The magic.

There are lots of quotes hanging over my computer monitor right now. Two of them pertain to what I’m trying to talk about.

“Trust the ghost.” and  “Stay available to revelation.” *

The keys words here are “ghost” and “revelation.” They both imply that there are forces beyond our physical beings that inform our creative processes.

Of course, another word for these mystical, seemingly separate forces is “Subconscious.” That shadowy blue space. The cave with the deep pool. The liminal spot between reality and imagination. Whatever you think it is, subconscious isn’t something we control. Yet as creative types we rely on it to give us all our best material.

The tension between needing to control our worlds (remember that God Complex) and the knowledge we don’t control them at all is at the root of a lot of writerly angst. How can I promise to meet a deadline when I’m not sure if my subconscious will be in a giving mood?

Trust the ghost.

Our subconscious acts as a sort of checks and balance for our ego. The more we try to force it to offer up ideas that will make us a bestseller, the more stubborn it becomes. She’ll dig her heels in and, if you’re a real jerk about it, she might close down her little idea factory altogether.

Some of you are rolling your eyes. All this talk of magic and ghosts and mysterious subconscious processes sounds like a lot of bunk to you. That’s fine. Maybe you’ve never experienced the sensation of being totally in the flow and feeling like you’re merely a conduit for words that are being channeled through your fingers. Maybe you’ve never experienced the adrenaline high of an idea exploding behind your eyes. Maybe you have and just don’t buy into mumbo jumbo. You’re a realist, thank you very much.

That’s fine with me. I’m just telling you that it’s not uncommon for writers to exercise this form of magical thinking, as psychologists call it. I don’t think there’s a damned thing wrong with it, as long as it keeps you writing. Because it doesn’t matter where the words originate, as long as they end up on the page.

But you should probably trust the ghost anyway.

For more on this idea, check out this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert.

 

*”Trust the Ghost” came form a book I read, but I don’t recall which one. If you know the origin please share it in comments. As for the “Stay available to revelation,” I first heard it in an interview with David Milch, creator of Deadwood.

Craft Thursday: Synesthesia

Today I thought I’d tackle one of my favorite little tricks for writing vibrant prose. Synesthesia is a neurological trait where a person processes sensory stimulus through a non-traditional sense. For example, they might taste sound or see numbers in color or hear colors as music. Cool, huh?

Here’s a basic overview of what it is.

Believe it or not, you probably already use lots of synesthesia in your everyday life. Yes, friends, I’m talking about our friend the metaphor. We use them all the time without even realizing we’re doing it. But what I am going to propose to you today is consciously using synesthetic metaphors to enhance your writing.

Compare these two sentences.

“He was afraid.”

or

“Fear choked him with its metallic fist.”

Okay, I cheated a little. The first sentence it not only passive, but it also is a classic example of “telling.” The second sentence suffers from neither of those issues. But it also packed a one, two punch of synesthesia (there’s also some personification in there for good measure). Does fear have a flavor (metal)? Does it have a tangible form (the fist)? Or a touch (choking)? Of course not. Yet the sentence works because it’s got the figurative ring of truth.

I use synesthesia all the time to keep my metaphors fresh. Because cliched metaphors are both lazy and so overused that they lack impact. It’s especially important to be fresh with your figurative language if you’re trying to highlight a scene or beat of high tension. Otherwise, if you rely on cliche, the reader will just skim the line and move on.

But you can used synesthesia for more than just moments of tension. If you want to highlight an object or a setting, employing the technique will help plant the image in the readers’ minds. So when my character walks into a magical laboratory, she doesn’t just smell “the astringent scent of rosemary” she also detects “the calming, purple fragrance of lavender.”

Purple is a descriptor normally used for describing how something looks, but I’m using it here to describe a scent. Get it?

Some other examples:

“His sandalwood scent made me think of swelling romantic music and silky sheets.” (Scent associated with sound and touch)

“Her screams tore at the air and left bloody, red wounds.”  (Sound described with color and touch)

Now, before you run off to add synesthesia to your work in progress, a warning: Do not go through and use synesthesia in every metaphor and description in your book. Like most figurative language techniques, it’s more effective when employed with discretion. If you use it for everything, you’ll lose impact in sentences where you really need that extra oomph.

Have you used synesthesia in your writing?

 

Craft Thursday: Be More Bendy

Writers aren’t known as the most flexible souls in any sense of the word. First of all, we spend way too much time on our ass, which is horrible for the bendiness. Second, we tend to create these arcane and mysterious rituals that we swear help us stay in touch with the muse or the flow or whatever magical force we credit for our creativity. Here agin, not so flexible. The slightest thing that knock us off our stride.

An example. for years I refused to quit smoking because I swore it made me a better writer. Ridiculous, right? Try telling me that a year ago when I was mainlining nicotine under deadline. I am happy to report that today, I am more than capable of writing lots and lots of great words without the aid of carcinogens. Of course, I’ve replaced them with wine and Oreos, but that’s neither here nor there.

My point is, lack of flexibility can be a good thing when we’re putting our foot down something we believe in. It is not a good thing if it stands in the way of production.

On Monday, I had to go drop my beloved Macbook, Precious, off at the Genius Bar for some triage. Her logic board was on the fritz, which was leading to some terrifying crashes. I can’t imagine the look of loss on my face when the guy told me I’d have to leave her. It was not unlike asking me to leave my child behind. This computer is not just my portal to all of you, it’s also the epicenter of my career.

Luckily, as the wife of a computer dude, I was not without access to another computing device. But it didn’t have all my files and programs loaded on it the way I like them. It didn’t have Twitter or iTunes installed. It didn’t have Scrivener, which is my preferred drafting program. I couldn’t hook it up to the external monitor I prefer to use because it fills my vision with the document I’m working on.

You guys, I was so productive. I had to work at stopping working to go check email and twitter. Instead of getting distracted by trolling iTunes for the perfect song for the scene I was working on, I flipped on a Pandora station and forgot about it. I focused on working for longer stretches than I’ve work in probably months. Holy shit, y’all, I didn’t multitask and it was awesome.

Few things. First, the lesson here is that comfort zones are wonderful, but also safe. If you want to see a change in your work, you’ve got to run far away from safe. Second, if what you’re doing is working for you, then feel free to ignore me. Just be honest with yourself. Third, inflexibility can prevent you from making wonderful discoveries about yourself and your writing.

Of course, the example I gave was pretty mundane. I mean, yes, the means with which we get words on the page is important, but it doesn’t get to the heart of this issue, does it?

How about you try a story that scares the hell out of you? The one you’re worried your family will disown you over. The one that makes your stomach clench but also makes your inner rebel perk up.

What if you stopped insisting that you are a diehard plotter/panster/outliner/scene writer and test out the waters of the complete opposite approach?

What if you took the advice of that critique partner? You know the one. She glares at you over her horn rimmed glasses and corrects your grammar and thinks she knows everything about the craft. Maybe she does. Maybe you should listen to her instead of getting defensive and silently imagine strangling her with her beaded glasses strap. Or maybe you’ve been listening to your critique group and they’re a bunch of idiots. It happens all the time. We take advice because we lack confidence in ourselves. In that case, you’d need to get out of your comfort zone by being less flexible.

Or hell, maybe you need to be flexible about what you write, period. I started out thinking I would write historical fiction. I had aspirations for being a very serious writer of poetic prose. Clearly I was smoking some literary crack. I had to be honest with myself about who I really am and in what key my voice really sings. So be flexible about your chosen genre. Finding your authentic voice is more important than some marketing term, anyway.

Terrifying, right? Being flexible means leaving the comfort zone behind. But ask yourself this: Does the prospect of falling on your face scare you more than dying without ever really trying?

Go make yourself uncomfortable today.

Craft Thursday: Live a Little

I’ve been reading the book IMAGINE: HOW CREATIVITY WORKS by Jonah Lehrer. It’s a fascinating look at how creativity works, even in non-traditionally creative venues. One of the things he discusses is the importance of travel and new experiences to creativity. We often call this “filling the well” and if you ain’t doing it, you’re handicapping yourself and your stories.

Last night, I spent eight hours riding in a cop car. I’ve mentioned here and elsewhere that I’ve been participating in a Citizen’s Police Academy through my city. Part of the program is the opportunity to do a ride along. Now please understand the decision to sign up was not an easy one. A) I’m a writer, not a hero. B) I’m a control freak and the idea of putting myself in a dangerous situation is terrifying. So naturally I had to do it.

I did it because I wanted to know what it’s like. I did it because I want to be able to write convincingly about cops. I did it because I want to be able to describe the adrenaline rush of roaring down the road with sirens blaring to chase down a perp who’s running through a neighborhood. I did it because I was afraid and that means it’s something that needs exploring.

I’ve done lots of things in the service of writing that I never would have had the guts to do otherwise. The desire ot have lot sof experiences to draw from for my fiction is kind of like a passport. Even though I get nervous and doing things out of my comfort zone isn’t always comfortable, I know that ultimately it will benefit both my fiction and my life.

Because guess what–your writing is your life. It’s your life distilled and filtered and morphed and reshaped. If you spend all your time stuck in a high tower and you never speak to real people and you never challenge yourself your fiction will show it.

This is not to diminish the role of imagination in our work. But I’m one of those ridiculous people who thinks a writer can’t live on imagination alone. If you spend all your life with your nose buried in the laptop or the notebook, you’re going to miss the entire ride.

“Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” –Auntie Mame.

Not for nothing, but there’s no guarantee writing will bring you fame and fortune. If anything, it’s a guarantee of the opposite. So while you’re pursuing this unattainable dream, maybe you should enjoy yourself a little. Go drive fast cars and get into fist fights and kiss someone who’s all wrong for you. Get your heart pumping. Know what it feels like to have your heart broken. Laugh until you pee a little. Talk to people you have nothing in common with and learn something from them. Do something that scares you.

Yes, put your ass in the chair and write. Let your imagination go wild. But every now and then, leave the chair. Leave the house, for chrissakes. Seek adventure. Your stories and your future self will thank you for it.

Craft Thursday: Playing God with a .38 Special

As a sort of corollary to last week’s post, The Journeyman Writer , I thought I’d share how I’m currently working on my own craft.

But first, a musical interlude.

Writers are control freaks.That’s why we find creating worlds from scratch and torturing the poor inhabitants fun.  Playing god is a gas.

But if you’re like me, this tendency to want to control everything can cause more problems than it solves in the early stages of writing a book.

This is exactly the issue I was struggling with earlier this week. I’m working on a new proposal. It’s an idea that I’ve wanted to write for a long time. As the date neared to start working on it, I had romantic notions about the freedom to create without a deadline. How these new characters would be charming and interesting and so fun to work with. What I was forgetting was how much work is involved to create a world from scratch. I forgot that it’s not easy to get to know new characters. And soon, the pressure I put on myself to make this next series a blockbuster, ruined all my fun.

Then I realized that while I am pretty good at dishing out advice, I am not so good at listening to it myself. I wasn’t having fun. I wasn’t being patient with my process. But most of all, I was trying to force the story into a plot way too early.

It hit me on Monday that I needed to take a step back. That I needed to reread the blog posts I’ve been doing for you guys and take my own medicine. So I did.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a novelist friend who mentioned she was working on a scary new idea herself and found THE 90-DAY NOVEL by Alan Watt helpful. As it happened, I realized I already owned that book, but had not read it. So I pulled it out this week and got to work.

Watt’s central idea is that we must allow ourselves time at the beginning to let our imaginations play with our ideas. Imposing structure on these fragile things too early can destroy a story’s promise before its had time to develop. Which brings us to the reason I’ve had a .38 Special song stuck in my head all week: Watt says that in the beginning, we must hold our ideas loosely.

Maybe this sounds a little granola or woo-woo to you. But to me it makes perfect sense. My best work comes after a period of play. When I allow myself to toy around with images and snippets of ideas for a while, by the time I am ready to write the process is much smoother. It’s smoother because the better I know my characters and the world, the more organically the plot unfolds.

Why? Because all that futzing around is actually laying the foundation for your story. It’s work, but it doesn’t feel like work. Brainstorming while we do dishes and watching movies and reading other books and answering character questions (and Watt’s questions are great–much better than ridiculous character profiles) and writing down images without judging them allows our subconscious to do its job. It allows us to understand what drives our characters. To delve into their backstories. To understand what themes drew us to this idea in the first place. In short, it allows us to understand what we want to say before we commit it to paper.

Imposing loose ideas into molds breaks them. It prevents them from blossoming into their potential. It also results in forced, formulaic writing. Why formulaic? Because when we’re stuck and stressed, we tend to fall back on easy fixes. Genre fiction is filled with examples of books that rely on formulas to act as short hand for telling a good  story. But my absolute belief is that the best genre fiction respects the conventions of its genre while also elevating them through rich characterization, fresh writing, breaking some rules, and honest treatment of theme.

Now, I will say that my patience an only be stretched so far. Spending a month doing freewriting exercises is just not going to happen. It also won’t, as Mr. Watt suggests, take me a month to write the first act of the story. But I have a few books under my belt and writing is my full-time job. I’m confident enough in my abilities to work through issues beginners face and can therefore skip some of the more elementary steps. So, basically, I am using the lessons as a reminder to be patient with the story and let it develop.

This approach might make some of you itchy. You might do better just diving in and discovering your story as you write it. But I know this does not work for me. And that is part of the challenge of learning to be a writer: Learning what works for you and what doesn’t, while also being open to new approaches that might push your craft to higher elevations.

If this post resonated with you, you might want to check out THE 90-DAY NOVEL. Just understand, writing is an art and a craft. Just like formulas don’t result in good plots, they also don’t magically result in a finished book. You still have to do the work. You have to be open to trying new tools to do the job. But most of all, you have to …

“Hold on loosely and don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re going to loose control.”

 

Craft Thursday: Crack the Eggs

One of the questions authors are always asked is “Where do you get your ideas?”

While I believe most people who ask this question are genuinely interested in and maybe a little baffled by the writer brain, it misses the whole point of what being a writer of fiction is all about.

Just like an inventor isn’t an inventor unless they take an idea and turn it into a product, a writer isn’t a writer unless they do the work to transform an idea into a story. Getting ideas, in other words, isn’t work. It’s a fact of the average writer’s life. Our brains are wired to constantly scan our surroundings for story inspiration.In every moment of our days, we are both participants in our lives as well as observers.

Instead of thinking of writers are blood hounds constantly on the trail of that one perfect idea, it’s more realistic to imagine us as vacuums. Every waking moment–and usually also when we’re asleep because dreams are fertile with ideas–we’re sucking up everything we see, hear, smell, taste and touch. We become dusty vacuum bags of experience. Every snippet of conversation we overhear, every oddity we notice as we drive, every news story, blog post, commercial, TV show, billboard–all of these things go into our idea bag, where they wait for our subconscious to push them through the filter and offer them up as needed for stories.

I think one thing that unites all writers is that we’re endlessly curious about the world and the people in it. So we watch. We collect. We analyze. Nothing we witness isn’t fodder for stories. So you’ve got this idea bag filled with millions of story nuggets. Does that mean you’re a writer?

No, my friend. You have to use those ideas to create something new.

This is where things get tricky. Let’s using cooking to illustrate my point.

Let’s say you’re hungry but you haven’t been to the store for a while. You open your fridge and find you have three eggs. Hmm, you think. What could I do with these? You rifle through every egg recipe you’ve got in your head. You could just scramble or boil them, but that’s boring. You look in your fridge again. This time you come up with a chunk of cheese. That’s better, but still a little plain. Hmm, you remember you had half a bell pepper and some onion left over from that salad you made two days ago, and a little detective work in the drawers nets a couple slices of ham from the deli.

You set all these items on the counter and realize you’ve got everything you need for a Western omelet. Now, we’re cooking.

But wait. You don’t really have a Western omelet yet, do you? You just have the ingredients. You still have to make them work together. You still have to crack the eggs and beat them. You have to shred the cheese, slice the peppers, onion and ham. You have to cook them all and add the ingredients in just the right way if you want an omelet instead of an egg scramble. You have to master the wrist motion to perfectly fold your omelet. You have to sauté your bell peppers and onions. You have to know when you add the ham and cheese. And when you’re done with all that, you finally have breakfast.

Do you see? Having ingredients (ideas) on hand is not the same as having an omelet (story). It takes creativity and work to turn those ingredients into a meal.

Anyone else hungry?

When you ask me where I get my ideas, I’m not being flippant when my answer is, “Everywhere.” My brain is hardwired to collect ideas. The magic happens when my brain gets a hold of all these disparate elements and proceeds to mix them together to create a story.

But it’s more complex than that. Of course it is.

Your brain would take the same collection of ideas I have and come up with a completely different tale. Why? Because you have different experiences than I do. Experiences we have act as a filter for ideas. If you see a bottle of wine, your brain might filter it to become a romance about a sommelier and a waitress. My brain will take that same bottle and turn it into a vineyard run by vampires as a front for an illegal blood farm (as I did in RED-HEADED STEPCHILD). You might see a roller derby match and decide you want to write a story about a young girl who finds herself and a new family by joining a roller derby team (the movie WHIP IT). I see a roller derby bout and turn it into a subplot about a roller derby team made up of vampires, mages, faeries and werewolves that are coached by a Mischief demon (SILVER-TONGUED DEVIL).

Ideas are everywhere. Everywhere.

But not every idea goes anywhere.

Writers discard more story ideas in a year than they can count. Some seem so perfect but end up being duds. Some duds end up becoming brilliant. The only way to find out which way an idea will go is to work with it. To write.

I could give you a brilliant, million-dollar idea, but unless you get your ass off the couch and open your laptop, that idea plus $2 won’t even buy you an omelet.

You want to know how I get my ideas? I want to ask you how you manage not to get them? But then, you don’t really want to know about ideas at all. You want to know how I tell stories. And the answer to that is quite simple.

I crack a few eggs.

Craft Thursday: Messages From the Liminal

Last night I had one of those dreams where you wake up and think “What was that?” Look, I know, everyone thinks their dreams are really interesting. Meanwhile their audience’s eyes are glazing over and their chins dipping in that sort of polite bobble-headed nod. But this is my blog, so …

I was in a writing seminar. My editor and some sort of instructor were at the front of the room. The question posed was something like, “What is it about writing? What’s the important thing? Why do you do it?”

I’m called to give an answer. Stand. Grandly announce, “It’s all about the words.” I see people shift. Feel uncomfortable myself because I know this is not a real answer. It’s just one of those writerly answers that we use to sound very important and deep.

I hold up my hand. “Actually, it’s not just the words.” I placed my hands on my midsection–just over my diaphragm. “Writing opens the third eye that resides here, in my gut. That eyes sees the world more honestly and clearly than my real eyes.”

And that, my friends, is the real answer.