How to Be A Creative Genius

Not the actual factory near my house. But similar.

Not the actual factory near my house. But similar.

I am currently working on a story that features a coffin factory. Everyone loves this little touch. “How did you think of that?” people have asked. “It’s so atmospheric and creepy and perfect!”

When I hear things like this, I just say, “Thank you,” and try to smile mysteriously, as if I just can’t help being a genius. But here, on this blog, I will reveal the truth: I live one block from a coffin factory.

In fact, I have lived one block from a coffin factory for ten years, and I never, ever thought of putting it in a story until a few months ago. I really didn’t think about it much at all. It was just there, like the old guy who decorates his electric wheelchair with bits of colorful garbage and the mysterious abandoned car rusting at the bottom of the hill near the bike path (no road in sight). I’ve never put those in a story, either. In fact, I hadn’t even recognized them as “strange” until I wrote them down. Just now.

But the important thing to remember is that, often, inspiration is an outside job. Writers don’t create so much as they connect. For ten years, you walk past a coffin factory every single day. Then—one day—you walk past, and you really see what is there. You connect the possibilities that exist in a setting like that, the symbols, the meaning.

Everyone has experienced one of those moments in which you are busily telling a story, and someone interrupts you because what you have said is strange. “Wait—there was a guy who lived down the street from you who shot at the neighborhood cats with a BB gun, and nobody ever called the cops?” Um, yes. There was. We never thought about it because he was just…there. When I moved to Guatemala, people kept asking me what it felt like to be having this adventure. “Um, it feels kind of normal. Like it’s just this thing I’m doing.” When I tell the details now–my weird role in a Spanish-language production of The King and I, the phosphorescent sand on the beach, the ants the size of my thumb that lived in the rainforest–it all seems peculiar and amazing. But while I was there, it was just my life. I had no perspective.

Writing, then, is the act of changing perspective, of seeing the world anew, and of connecting what we find to the universal. The good news is that the world is already out there, all around us. There is strangeness everywhere, even in the most “normal” suburb in America, once you start to pay attention. Why do all of the girls dress the same? Why are all of the yards so perfect, except for that one at the end of the block, where the old lady lives? Why did they close down the neighborhood pool? What does it mean?

The world is a bizarre place, and the strangest of all are the people in it. You don’t have to be a genius to see that.


Bonus Blog: Winter, It’s ON!

 

Savor some cocoa, people, before it's too late!

I’ve been seeing quite a lot of facebook Letters to March lately, asking it to cut it out and warm up already. It’s starting to feel a little bit like Narnia out there: It’s always winter, and never Christmas. I woke up this morning to a bright, sunny sky, and thought—foolishly—that the weather might be spring-like. Then I looked at the thermometer. 6 degrees. Fahrenheit, international people.

And that was when it hit me. This is our last stand.

Friends, this is it. This is the final hour. It is the time we show what we are truly made of. Winter will not defeat us! But we must fight it with our greatest weapon, the only thing that can dull the edge of winter’s brittle sword. We’re talking Radical Coziness.

When my dear friend, Kate Egan, moved to Maine, I asked her how she was going to stand the long winters. She told me that she liked cold, and then she said something that I still cling to on the bitterest nights: “You can never be cozy in warm weather.”

It’s time to flip the script and try some #savoring, friends. In a few months, all of that coziness will disappear. Here are ten ideas!
1. Do you have a fireplace? Light it up.
2. Snuggle onto the couch with a fuzzy blanket and a novel or magazine.
3. Cuddle someone!
4. Hot drinks are made for #savoring. Make hot chocolate. Add WAY TOO MANY marshmallows or AN EMBARRASSING AMOUNT OF WHIPPED CREAM. Try #savoring hot coffee or hot tea. You won’t even want them in July, but they’re fantastic now!
5. Go for a ten-minute walk in the cold and then admire your rosy cheeks. You look fabulous!
6. Get out that scented candle! You know, the one you’ve been saving, preferably one with a scent like, “Gingerbread Cookie,” “North Pole,” or “Winter Midnight.” It is better to light a scented candle than to curse the darkness!
7. Eat soup! Make stew! MAKE A POT PIE! Take that, Winter! My Crock Pot will bring you to your knees!
8. Get out your little fairy/ Christmas/ twinkle lights. String them around your bedroom, family room, or living room. Just one strand. Turn off the lights and light those babies up!
9. Do you have a winter craft hobby? Quilting, doll making, knitting, felting, crochet? Choose a quick project and get cracking. We only have few weeks left to enjoy our wool!
10. Don’t forget to get a last lick in on your favorite winter sport! Ice skating, cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, CURLING!

Friends, our victory is assured, but the battle rages on. It’s only a matter of time—we must simply hold our ground. We’re in this together! No more facebook letters to Winter begging for mercy! We’re #savoring!


Are Your Characters As Memorable As This Cat?

 

photo copyright Nikolai Pozdeev

Wow. This cat is a character. You can tell just by looking at his face. Are your characters as memorable as this cat? And, if not, how can you make them unforgettable?

One of the writers I admire most is Charles Dickens. His characterizations are incredibly economical–he packs a ton of meaning into a few well-chosen details. His characters are funny, original, and utterly memorable, which is a good thing, as his books are long and juggle many subplots. Sometimes, his characters will disappear for chapters on end, only to reappear later in a new context, tying other characters and subplots together in an unexpected way. Yet I never have trouble placing them. So—how can you make your characters memorable? Here are five ways:

1. Give your character his or her own unique phase or speech pattern. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge, one of Dickens’s most famous characters. What does he say over and over? “Bah, humbug.” Fantastic! Here we have an expressive, unique phrase with which we can pin down the essence of Scrooginess. I once wrote a character who said everything as if it were a question. (I’m going to eat a burrito? And then have some water?) She was a minor character, and this verbal tic helped her stand out.

2. Give your character a quirk. Vincent Crummels, the theater director, is a chronic exaggerator who will happily put anything over on an audience. Aged P (the Aged Parent) is old and quite deaf, but is happy to be nodded at and to read his newspapers by candlelight. (A charming, yet dangerous, pastime.) Remember, writers–one well-chosen quirk is far better than a hundred meaningless ones.

3. Give your character a strong, relevant backstory. Miss Havisham, anyone? Few characters in literature are as memorable as the old lady who was jilted at the altar and still sits around in her wedding dress letting her house decay around her. Zowie.

4. Give your character a funny, expressive name. Wackford Squeers. Mr. Bumble. Lady Dedlock. Pip. Ebenezer Scrooge. It is always tempting to name our characters something simple and believable, like John or Mackenzie. However, names are an opportunity to express mood, idea, or emotion to the unconscious mind. Although these names may be rarely spoken aloud, the reader “hears” the names with his or her aural mind, or listening sense. Uriah Heep sounds like something disgusting, and he is.

5. Make your character’s introduction memorable. The dandruff shampoo ad used to warn us that “you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” and that eternal piece of wisdom holds true today. Here is our first glimpse of Sir Leicester Dedlock: “Sir Leicester Dedlock is only a baronet, but there is no mightier baronet than he. His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills but would be done up without Dedlocks.” Well. In the space of two sentences, we have learned much of what we need to know about that guy.

Ever wondered which Dickens character you are? Here’s a quiz from Oxford Words: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2014/02/charles-dickens-character-quiz/

 


Secrets of a Prolific Writer

I have written a lot of books, people. Trust me.

I've written a lot of books, people. Trust me.

 

Recently, a new friend admitted to me that she has a writer hidden inside her. “Oh, I’ll bet it isn’t hidden that far,” I told her. The next time I saw her, we chatted a bit about writing, and my new friend admitted feeling discouraged because “all of the books say that you should write every day.” This woman has a full-time job, a marriage, a house, two small children, and a puppy, and she was feeling guilty because she didn’t write every day. When my daughter was younger, I couldn’t even manage to brush my teeth every day!

Friends, readers, and fellow writers, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: You do not have to write every day. I don’t. And I’m one of the most prolific writers I know.

Look, I see why this advice is useful. Many writers do write every day. But most of those writers do not have both full-time jobs and small children. If they do, their full time job is writing, and that’s how they get the work done. My full time job is writing, and I still don’t write every day. Why is that? Two reasons: 1. Much of writing does not involve actual writing. It involves thinking or researching. and 2. I sometimes get sick or have other stuff to do. Sometimes there is a snow day. Life happens.

Writing is difficult, and it will be much worse for you if you are constantly plagued by guilt about writing. Writers who never feel as if you are doing enough often do not bother getting started in the first place.  Instead, I encourage you to do your best to find time to write and to make your expectations realistic. If you can only manage to write one morning each weekend, then try to write once a week. And don’t feel guilty about the other six days! If you have time off during summers and can devote two solid months to writing, then do it. And don’t feel guilty about the other ten months! No matter what schedule is realistic for you, if you keep feeling positive about the process, the pages will start to pile up.

There will be moments in your life when you have more time/ inclination/ ability to write, and there will be moments when you have less. This is simply the way the rhythms of life and art work. Do not let any craft book dictate what you need to do for your art. That book doesn’t know you.

You do.

 

 

 

 

 


Chickum

When Chris Tebbets and I sent in the first draft of the manuscript for M or F?, we were pretty excited. We were strangers before we began the project, but working together had bonded us. We had a similar sense of humor and quirky way of looking at things, and we started to think of ourselves as “brain twins.” Unsurprisingly, our two main characters were best friends, and also thought of themselves as brain twins. Chris and I had come up with a fun, rollicking plot based loosely on Cyrano de Bergerac, and we had written funny scenes and great dialog. I, frankly, expected a rave from the editor. Instead, what I got back was, “I just don’t feel that these two characters are best friends. What’s their history?”

Ah.

The best editors see what we cannot see for ourselves. In modeling Marcus and Franny’s friendship on our own, Chris and I had failed to realize one thing: we did not have a shared history. The book had brought us together. We were new friends, not old friends. Marcus and Franny were supposed to be old friends, at least, older than the few months that Chris and I had known each other. But how do you do this? How can you craft a an authentic friendship with a sense of history without clogging up the words with pointless backstory?

Chickum is a joke that about ten good friends of mine understand. I won’t bother explaining it; you won’t think it’s funny. I didn’t come up with it, but every time I read it, I crack up. All I have to do is see a rubber chicken, and I giggle. We all have jokes and shared memories like this—moments that can be referenced in shorthand between good friends. For M or F?, Chris and I had to take the time to create funny and/ or poignant shared memories for Marcus and Franny. We had to come up with in-jokes. We had to know their history, not so that we could explain it in overwrought backstory, but so that we could reference it the way that real friends do. (“Remember the time—?” “Don’t say it.” “Double monkey.” “You said it! You said it! I hate you!” And so on. Teenagers can have conversations like this for hours.)

Sometimes, I wonder why I should bother writing a particular character’s backstory. (I never want to do it–I always want to move forward, forward!) But the answer always comes back to texture and authenticity. In the final version of M or F?, Franny and Marcus were believable as good friends because we took the time to create the history of their friendship. If you’re looking for a way to get inside your character’s relationships, start with memories. These moments don’t even need to appear in the manuscript–many of of the ones Chris and I worked on did not. But like the proverbial iceberg, the part that does not show is the part that holds up everything else.

For further reading:

Here’s a great article from Writer’s Digest about making backstory seamless.


A Message from Ivana Correctya

Hello, Darlings!

Lisa is sick this week, so she asked if I would write a guest post on her blog. I always try to help when I can, but I simply did not have time to write a single word. (I did not even have time to write the words that you are reading now. I dictated them to my chauffeur, Fabio, who is also an excellent typist.) Instead, I have filmed a video. I hope you love it!

And remember, darlings–always be grammarous!

 


Off Topic: Mess

This is not my desk. But I kind of wish it were....

I struggle with housework. Sometimes, I have it all under control. Sometimes not. Laundry is my particular bane, because it is endless, and even one skipped day can mean chaos. My husband and I actually have a pretty fair arrangement about housework. Many years ago, we went through the list of stuff that had to be done, and we talked about what we hated and what we didn’t. We then took on the stuff we didn’t mind so much. I cook; he cleans up. I do laundry (I hated it less when it was just the two of us); he takes out the garbage and compost. However, studies seem to indicate that women still do the lion’s share of the housework. Anecdotally, I can say this is true even in the most feminist/ egalitarian marriages I know.

That’s why I was interested in a recent article in the New York Times. It reasoned that, since it seems to be impossible to persuade men to do more housework–the solution is that everyone should just do less. “Live in filth,” was the argument’s premise. Filth, it pointed out, is relative. People in the Middle Ages were way filthier than anyone today. (Thanks, plumbing!)

Interesting. I can honestly say that, in all of these years, “live in filth” has never occurred to me as a possible solution.

Perhaps that is because I feel that living in filth is bad for my brain. I have heard people say that a clean home is the sign of a wasted life, but I disagree. A clean house means that you know where your car keys are. It means the shirt you want to wear is clean. It means you can find the library books that you need to return. A dirty, messy house means countless hours looking for shoes, hairbrushes, hats, homework. A messy house means mental clutter.

Look, I’m not saying that houses have to be perfectly ordered, or that we should all vacuum our drapes. I’m just saying that “live in filth” doesn’t really seem like a practical solution.

In our (utterly imperfect) house, we tend to focus less on chores, and more on habits and systems. When things are in a flow, laundry gets done every morning and the dishes are washed and put away ever night. A batch of soup is made over the weekend for lunches. The fridge is cleaned out before Sunday grocery shopping. When these things happen, my entire week flows more smoothly.

I actually derive a lot of happiness and satisfaction from housework. Unlike a novel, it is instantly gratifying–you can see results with a little effort. I don’t know what the solution is to greater housework parity, aside from women with sons teaching them the joys and zen of cleaning. Think about zen gardens. Raking stones is much like cleaning out a drawer.

Housework is an art, and I think that part of the problem is that men don’t have an appreciation for it. Not because they can’t, but because they have not been taught. My daughter is learning to play the cello, and–as a result–now understands music, and can hear the difference between something that is played well and something that is played poorly. In the same way, Ali tells me that he watches movies differently since knowing me, because I spend so much time talking about plot and character. Boys who are exposed to housework at a young age will know how to appreciate it more. The bonus is that, as adults, they will help their partners. The trick is to have a standard that is neither too high (Martha Stewart) or too low (filth), but that enables you to do the things you really love (eat delicious, healthy food; sleep in a comfy, clean bed; read; write) more easily. It should support and enhance your life, not overtake it.

More articles on this subject:

New York Magazine has a terrific “get real” rebuttal to Stephen Marche’s NYT article. This piece is by Jessica Grose.

Here is a short piece that appeared in the American Psychological Association website, that talks about the link between mess and creativity.


How To Write A Blog

The actual notebook where I wrote the first draft of this post. Yes, that's my lipstick on the coffee cup.

When I was a kid, I was entranced by the idea of a diary. It felt like something that creative yet organized people do. I imagined that I would record the details of my daily life and someday, maybe years after my death, someone would find it and think, “Wow. I am so lucky that Lisa P. kept a diary. She’s fascinating!” There was only one problem: My diaries were not fascinating. The chronicles of what I did all day read like a list of errands. They were dead boring to write, and even worse to read.

Later, in my 20’s, I stumbled across The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. In it, she suggests writing “Morning Pages” to improve creativity. These pages are not meant to be real writing. They are more like a way to drain your brain of the mundane. (Let us now pause to observe the poetry of that line.) They are a warm up to get you ready to work. I faithfully wrote my pages every day for years—complaints, whines, fears, and even statements that I could not think of anything to say. The challenge I faced was that although I knew the pages were not real writing, they felt like real writing. They felt like real, bad writing. They did not prepare me to write better. They made me feel tired and discouraged. I have no doubt that they are enormously helpful for some. Not for me, though.

Eventually, I started a blog. My first blog, on Amazon.com, was simply funny observations and anecdotes—much like a little diary. But I never felt much purpose in that kind of writing, and it was too public. People were voting on whether or not they liked my posts, and some of them were voting against it! Can you imagine getting a bad review on your diary? I stopped blogging and mulled over the point of it all.

When I began again, it was in a group led by musician/ blogger/ author/ workshop leader/ close friend Nerissa Nields. She encouraged us to think about the purpose of our blog, and our audience. I decided to focus my writing on things that I really care about: reading, writing, and the writing life. Now, everything I write circles back to that. Who cares if there are five zillion other blogs about the same topic? That just means that people are interested.

These days, when I write a blog entry, I don’t think about “my day” per se. I thik about what is in my mind. I think about what is in my heart. Usually, something has been rattling around, waiting for expression on the page. I keep a running list of thoughts and ideas to explore in the back of my notebook. That way, I never get stuck facing a blank page.

So here are my three tips for keeping a diary or blog:

  1. Write about an idea or thought. The stories to support the idea will come.
  2. Keep a running list of your ideas, so you don’t forget them.
  3. Don’t let people vote on your blog posts. I moderate comments. Rude people and spammers are welcome to go start their own blogs. But rude people don’t seem to be interested in my blog.

For the first time in my life, I now have a “diary”—this blog. And I do think it has been useful to me, mostly because it connects me to people. Which is something that my diary never did.

If you are interested in starting a blog, Copyblogger has many helpful articles.

Also, I just joined the FREE app Lift, which has a blogging challenge, Become a Better Blogger in 30 Days. Join up!

 


A Pothole Story

A few years ago, I heard a strange noise while I was stopped at a stoplight. Across the busy intersection, a man in a wheelchair was bellowing for help. One of his rear wheels was stuck in a large pothole at the edge of a restaurant driveway–right at the place where it met the road.

I am not a large, muscular person. I’m a small, somewhat weak person. The only other human in the car with me was my two-year-old daughter. “Where we going?” she asked as I turned left and pulled into the restaurant driveway. “We’re going to help this man,” I told her. I parked safely away from the street and stepped out to do what I could. It wasn’t easy. His physical disabilities made it impossible for him to speak clearly, so I couldn’t quite understand what he thought I should do. I pushed for a while. Then I pulled. He revved the motor on his wheelchair. Finally, we managed to get the chair out of the hole. He rolled over my foot as he sped away. Those chairs are fast.

I was feeling pretty good as I returned to my car. I had helped someone. Really helped them! I mean, getting someone out of a hole–that is the essence of helpful! And, to top it off, I felt I had set a good example for my daughter. I smiled at her. “We did it!” I said. She pointed at the other cars passing by in the busy intersection. “They had to go to a meeting,” she said.

Cars had been rushing past the entire time I was working to get the man out of his dangerous pothole, and my daughter’s mind had been searching for a reason. They had to go to a meeting was what she came up with. Those other people couldn’t help. They had to be somewhere. My daughter was not impressed with the fact that I had helped the man. She was disturbed that we were the only ones who did.

I believe that this core of goodness exists in everyone. My two-year-old understood the concept and importance of helping. This is the human essence that we try to reach when we make art. It’s deep. It’s innate. Cultures and religions all over the world have similar values and ethical codes: Don’t kill, don’t steal, help others. But the complexities of life can twist our values, and persuade us that we don’t really have time to stop to help a man out of a hole. That’s why we need art and stories–to remind us of what is important, and to help us forgive ourselves when we don’t quite manage to live up to our ideals.

The truth is, I considered not stopping for the man stuck in the hole. I thought, “I have a baby in the car. I’m weak. This is weird. Let someone else do it.” On another day, I might have done the same thing. But I did stop to help, and the feeling of joy it gave me lasted for days. The people who didn’t stop missed out. “Yes, sweetie,” I told my daughter. “They had a meeting. But we had time, and we got to help.”

Other articles you may like:

From Brain Pickings, E.B. White’s thoughts on the writer’s purpose,”A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge.” 

From the Write Practice, here are ideas on the Four Reasons Why we Write.


The Genius Myth

Yesterday, I heard from an old friend. She told me that her daughter had dreams of being a writer, but felt discouraged. She isn’t even in high school yet, but doesn’t feel that being a professional writer is a realistic dream. I know this feeling well.

When I was in college, I applied to be in the creative writing thesis class. Only a few (10? 12?) English majors were allowed to write a “creative” thesis—that is, work on their own novel, book of poetry, or play, rather than writing about someone else’s work. I had been admitted to the poetry writing seminar in my junior year, which was another exclusive class for only a few students. My specialty was funny poetry. I had dreams of writing for kids. My thesis would be a first step in really honing my craft.

But I didn’t get into the creative thesis class.

For years, I thought that I didn’t get in because I wasn’t a good enough writer. If I wasn’t good enough to get into a class at Vassar, I reasoned, I wasn’t good enough to get published. So why bother pursuing it at all? I stopped writing poetry. For almost twenty years.

There is something strange in our attitude about art. We revere famous artists. We build museums to house their paintings, read and treasure their work in our schools, and visit their hallowed grave sites. We treat them like gods, and—correlatively—act as if no mere mortal should be allowed to pursue the same path. Either you are Shakespeare, or you are wasting everyone’s time. “Get a real job;” is something that people often say to aspiring artists, “be a dental hygienist! Healthcare is booming!”

The problem is that it is difficult to get better at something that you do not do. It’s not as if Shakespeare busted out with Macbeth at the age of eight.  He had to work as a writer to become brilliant. People give the example of Mozart’s young genius, but Mozart worked like a maniac even as a child. As Malcolm Gladwell has documented in his book, Outliers, a large part of the reason he was so “talented” is because he had put more time into his music by the age of 28 than most composers do in a lifetime.

Non-artists act as if art is a self-indulgent career for lazy people. I can tell you that the professional artists I know are relentless. They are always working. Art is the opposite of self-indulgence—it is public service. It is a calling. And, if you are called, you ignore that call to your peril.

Writing, music, dance, visual art—these are competitive fields. But they are also just jobs. Many people do these things professionally. People, not gods. Just people who love something that is good for the spirit, and want to share that love with the world. If you have a child who loves the arts, you can tell them to be a dental hygienist, and that might be good advice. There is a lot to be said for a steady income. It brings tremendous peace of mind and sense of accomplishment. But please encourage their art, too. Writing, dance, painting, drawing, playing music, singing, designing on a computer—these things also bring tremendous peace of mind and sense of accomplishment. As I’ve said before, I believe that we are all artists at heart.

As for me, I have finally started writing poetry again, and I love it. When I write poems, I feel a sense of mental absorption and rightness. I will never be Keats. But who cares? Success does not have to be huge and undisputed in order to be real. I’m not internationally famous, but I do have a real job and a real career, and I know from the letters that I receive that I am helping people, making them happy. If you want to write, please know that it is possible to have a career as an author. I’m doing it. Most of my good friends, are, too. And we’re just regular people. Work at it, and you will get better. You won’t be able to help it.

Here are links to a couple of books about the daily life of artists that I think are just brilliant:

If You Want To Write, by Brenda Ueland.

The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use It For Life, by Twyla Tharp.