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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

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Creativity

So, about those creative blocks…..

……you have one.

Or two. Or more.

The project you’re working on that previously seemed to flow with ease and inspiration is now suddenly, inexplicably, choking and sputtering to a halt. You curse the blank page, the blank canvas, the uncluttered sheet music, and attempt to plow through.

But nothing comes out. Or, if it does, it’s only in spurts, like a car lurching forward, eating every last drop of gas and oil.

This happens to me more than I’d care to admit. I still work the story, still write down questions and notes that spring to mind, but the actual writing of it feels like plowing through quick-dry cement – slow, painful, suffocating.

This is where I turn to another creative form, to replenish the artistic side and allow my subconscious to work out the knots in another way.

This is helpful for every creative art form that you pursue – whether you’re a musician, singer/song-writer, painter, potterer, you name it – if the flow is not there, it’s time to rest that muscle and seek some other artistic outlet and let your imagination play.

My favorite thing to do, when the muse refuses to speak, is to do water colors or sketch or just doodle on scraps of paper.

Like this guy:

Pen sketch; note the rather arrogant look in his eye.

That took me about ten minutes or so to sketch out.  Because I’m a writer, I always have a notebook handy, either to write down plot ideas or bits of dialogue.  Most of the time, however, I doodle.

A lot.

The horse to the left is an example of my doodling.  It’s relaxing, takes me out of my logic center and the best part is that I’ve given myself a chance to unhook from the current project I’m working on.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a recognizable figure – a lot of the time, my doodles resemble swirls of…….stuff.

Other times, I simply push aside all projects involving the written word and just do ART.

Lately, I’ve been inspired to create on canvas the worlds I write about.  Not necessarily the people, although I’m sketching out a couple of ideas, but most definitely the locations.  This helps me define the geographical features of the area, as well as give my stories life in a new form.  I always start out with a sketch, just to get the general idea of what I want it to look like out onto paper.  This is something I’ve learned to do – it saves time and energy when painting the images onto the canvas.

Like this:

Rough sketch of Wolf’s Head Bay by J.J. Brown, Wordslinger

What you’re seeing to the right is a rough sketch of my fictional town of Wolf’s Head Bay, as featured in my novel, Secrets & Howls.  I’ve always known that it would be a coastal town, that there would be a lighthouse and a harbor, where the fishing boats were docked.  I also knew that the mountains that loomed over the town had a distinct look to them – wolves howling at the moon above.

The featured image of this post is the final result – only, there is no lighthouse and no harbor.  The sketch is of a more recent view of the Bay, whilst the painting visualizes what the area looked like prior to settling.

Except…..is it unsettled?  Look closely, there might be a fire.

So, the upshot of this post is this – whatever your main medium of creative output, don’t close yourself off from other creative outlets, even if it’s completely the opposite of what you do.  It will give you another way of tapping into your subconscious and allow you to find your connection to your main creative expression.

For me, it’s painting and sketching, with writing as my main creative outlet.  For you, it might be pottery or singing or photography.  Every creative skill you can find will always benefit the one you have passion and drive for.

Go find it.

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So, every story I write has its own journal…..

……where I can jot down every idea and thought related to it.  That journal goes with me as I go about my day – you never know when that illuminating idea will strike.  And I enjoy this process because it allows me to keep everything in one place and readily accessible.  I’ve got at least three journals for Novel Now Finished and I expect that it will be the same for the sequel.  Most of my novels (in progress or finished) have more than one journal to document my journey, from inception to completion.

Photo credit: Unknown. But I need this mug.

Writers a funny breed – we observe, we document, we report on our findings, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.  I even keep a story idea box, which has become the repository of random items I find in my daily travels.  And I keep everything – from scraps of old news clippings to a broken pair of glasses, that box is chock full of potential stories.

The more I write and read, the more I’ve learned to discern the voices of other writers.  What does that mean?  Well, if I listen to particular composer’s music often enough, I can find his (or her) musical signature in other compositions.  Same with a particular writer – their ‘voice’ and writing patterns become familiar and within a few seconds of reading, I’ll know who penned that particular piece of writing.

This is all a part of my education as a writer – the more I read, the more I enrich my writing.  And the more I journal the process, the better chance I have of either skipping a step that didn’t work previously or taking it in a new direction.

So, I get the question (a lot) of why do I write……

……and my answer is a variation on the same theme – because I can’t not write, because I have to, because I feel compelled to write down what these fictitious people are saying and doing and thinking.  But I always leave out the most important thing, because I find it really difficult to explain when put on the spot.

In addition to the reasons listed above, I write because I want to feel things.  I write because it seems that the only place I can legitimately express the desire for love and passion is in the words my characters express*.  I can say the things I want to say, without fear of rejection, by way of a character to an idealized fictional version of the type of man I find attractive.  I can be witty and pithy and strong and powerful in these scenarios, without losing my essential sense of who I am.  In these stories, I am writing to find the best version of myself.

I think, in all aspects of art and creative work, we are searching for ourselves, for that voice that seeks expression.  Having feelings, both negative and positive, are normal – how we deal with them is what makes us human.  The more I pour my feelings, both light and dark, into my art and my writing, the better I feel.

By removing it from my inner self and splattering it on a blank canvas or Word document, I am dragging it out into the light, taking away its power and giving it a voice.  It can sometimes feel like lancing a wound and letting the poison seep out, so that the wound can heal.  And it did, for me, when a traumatic experience worked its way into a story.  I had lanced that wound, that was slowly poisoning me for three years.  It was never meant to be in the story I had been working on at the time.  But whether I had meant it or not, my subconscious found similar elements in the story that had mirrored the circumstances surrounding my trauma.

I think, no, I believe, that is when I really began to heal.

Art is like that.  Being creative is like that.  Creativity gives us a way to express things in another form, if words fail us.  Don’t be afraid of feeling.  Express it in art and find your voice and your strength.  Find yourself, get support, have faith in who you are.

What 336 pages of manuscript (minus ending) looks like.

*It’s also a safe and productive place to express darker themes, but that’s another post for another time.

So, I’m dabbling in art again……

……..which is something I did all the time as a kid and teenager. It’s a lot of fun, a feeling that I’d almost forgotten about. Over the years, my art output went from fully realized drawings and paintings to sketches to just random bits on scraps of paper.

I’m re-discovering the joys of allowing it to spread out all over the canvas (which is a new medium for me) and focusing on getting the picture out. If it’s not as detailed and precisely as I envision it, then I certainly work in the impression of what I want.

Go forth and find your creative spirit. Dive into the first artistic expression you can think of and move from there. Embrace all of it.

More importantly, have fun.

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So, I’m developing a Patreon page…..

……which will feature my creative work. Meaning, excerpts from my stories will be found on my Patreon page.

In fact, I’m working on a serial novel, where the readers will be given a determined number of choices (four) and whichever choice has the most votes, will be the next chapter.

Whether that will end up as an actual, hand-held paperback, I’m not entirely sure yet. I’m inclined to think that it will depend on the number of chapters this experiment will inspire and if it will even see a satisfactory conclusion.

There will be some other posts, as well, but I’m excited to see how this will work out. I love writing, I love seeing how people respond to what I write.

And now it’s time to make my words pay for themselves. When I’ve got it set up and running, with some posts behind it and the beginnings of the serial novel, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, keep writing, keep singing, keep dancing, keep drawing, keep being creative.

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So, I began teaching writing workshops…..

……for young writers, which is not only a new thing for me to do, but also something I’d never thought I’d do – teach. My parents and brother are retired teachers and, having grown up in that environment, it was something that didn’t really interest me. This is despite the Myers-Briggs test indicating that it should be my number one career choice. I don’t think that Myers-Briggs knows me very well.

In the traditional classroom setting, I don’t think I would make a good teacher. My memories of being a student and watching my parents deal with the day to day details made a huge impression on me and it wasn’t positive. However, I did find myself teaching basic horse care and riding to students whose first language wasn’t English. Even with the language barrier, we found a way to communicate and I was able to get the salient points across. It helped that the horses used were also extremely patient baby-sitters, taking everything in stride and enjoying the new students’ attention.

While I know my own experiences with being a writer (the ups, the downs, the sideways), I was very unsure of how it would work out with teaching young people. I was also rather uncertain about how we’d get along. In short, I had no idea what to expect.

I needn’t have worried – these kids were theater kids. They were also fans of a lot of the same movies and TV shows as I was, so we were able to connect and find common ground very quickly. We talked about writing, which turned into conversations about our favorite shows and then to dreams and analyzing what they might mean (I subscribe to Jung’s approach, where everything we dream is an aspect or reflection of the dreamer).

The workshop lasted only three days, at ninety minutes each. The kids were intelligent and funny and engaging and very excited about the idea of writing. I feel blessed and lucky to have been able to do this, which in itself was rather serendipitous. How did I find myself teaching writing to young people? I asked a local youth theater group and the answer was “Let’s do this thing!”

Where it goes from here, I’m not sure. I just know that I’ve got some very interested youths and adults wanting to write and have fun with discovering their process.

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So, Toni Morrison once said that……

…….“The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.” To write or paint or sing what you know is a good starting place, as it gives you the foundation and the tools to work with in order to build upon it. Continuing to create what you already know, however, leaves one feeling stagnant and dissatisfied. There is the sense that there is more to be learned, to be exposed to, in order to grow as an artist, whether of words or paints music.

In order to do that, you have to push beyond what you already know. If you love Shirley Jackson’s surreal prose, seek out a writer on the opposite end of the spectrum. If Monet inspires your canvas, look to Picasso. Find something so completely outside your own life experience, whether it’s in a book or in a museum or in an acting class, and embrace it. Tell that frightened voice that doubt is okay, that fear of the unknown is natural, but to kowtow to fear is what keeps us paralyzed in the same place day after day.

We can only grow through movement, through experience. An actor will inhabit many different people – in order to present them as real, rounded individuals as opposed to caricature, the actor will research her character to the last detail, up to and including language and movement. She will create a backstory for the character, something that only she will know, but the choices she makes informs her performance and provides a rich experience for the audience.

An example of this would be Demi Moore in G.I. Jane (1997). To prepare for her role as Lt. Jordan O’Neill, Moore had to undergo training and dietary changes. On top of that, she was sent to boot camp for two weeks, interacting with real military personnel. Keep in mind this was research and training for her character – this is an extreme example of pushing herself so far outside her comfort zone. But through this work, she created a character that was strong, intelligent, determined to succeed despite the odds stacked against her.

I remember seeing this film in the theater – the cheers from the audience when she challenges the master sergeant during her character’s training convinced me that they had wholly bought into her role, her character and were completely on her side to succeed.

This is really what you have to do in order to succeed – to reach for something that most certainly may exceed your grasp. How many times will you fall? You could fall down ten times, and rise up eleven, fall a hundred times, and rise up at a hundred and one. How you define success after that is entirely up to you.

****

Editor’s Note – this blog post is published concurrently on Citizens Journal VC 

Recommended Reading:

Beloved by Toni Morrison

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So, the topic of voice-overs came up at work the other day…..

……… A manager from another department at my place of work said he’d been told that he had a great voice that would lend itself to voice work, like commercials. This pleased the manager very much…..until he was told he should take some classes.

The manager was dismissive of this suggestion – if his voice was so good, why did he need to take classes?

Excellent question.

Given that my background is primarily theater (I hold a Bachelor’s degree in the subject), I attempted to explain to him that taking a class in voice work would actually benefit him, that it would give him tools in how to use his voice and diaphragm correctly. I added that actors, singers, writers, dancers, etc. take classes in order to keep their body (which is their instrument) in shape and capable of stretching beyond their comfort zone. This aids them in continuing to strive for their best work.

This notion was immediately dismissed by him and my co-worker. If you’re already good, then you don’t need to take classes, was their opinion. I was actually surprised by my co-worker’s attitude, since she does physical training to get into her target weight range. Does she think that once she gets to her target, she needs to stop training? Or that with one work out class, she knew all there was to know and should therefore quit? I didn’t think so at the time and I don’t think so now. Unfortunately, I was not able to draw a parallel to her workout regimen with that of an actor or dance or singer or musician.

The egos of my co-worker and the manager would not allow them to conceive of the idea that anyone with talent in the arts needed to have training.

Because that’s what those classes are – they are your workouts, your training sessions to exercise your muscles and learn new methods so that you can stretch and grow in ways you didn’t think possible. And when you’re not in your ‘workout’ class, you maintain what you’ve learned by practicing on your own.

The class, the workshop, the training you take in is only half of what you need to cultivate your creative talents. Practice is the other half to maintain it, improve it and grow it.

There’s an image of a ballerina’s feet that I’ve seen a number of times online. I like it because it’s a visual of how much hard work you have to put in to make your art look beautiful and effortless. One foot is encased in a pointe shoe, perfect and beautiful. The other foot is bare and shows the bruises and calluses and wear it has endured. What a ballet dancer does to make his or her movements graceful and effortless is reflected in that bare foot. It is hard, demanding work to be a ballerina. It is also symbolic of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to create a novel, a film, a painting, a play, etc.

Going back to the manager and my co-worker – they don’t understand that creative work is actually work. That to get skilled in it requires not just talent, but determination, training and practice. They seem completely turned off by the idea that they would have to do any actual work to become even decent.

So, no, they won’t pursue it. That’s fine. They’re enamored of the end result, but they aren’t willing to put in the hours or the discipline it takes to get there.

If you wrote a 400 page novel, a romantic song ballad, a poem, or painted a portrait or landscape or completed anything artistic, give yourself a round of applause. You did that. You sweated and worked and made something tangible out of the intangible.

Ignore the doubters and nay-sayers – they don’t have what it takes to do what you did.

Now go do it again.

*****

Editor’s note – this blog post is also published concurrently on Citizens Journal Ventura County.

So, I recently had the chance to see The Maltese Falcon (1941)……

……….where it should be seen to be truly enjoyed – on the big screen and starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor. Based on the 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name, the film follows the four as they race to get the legendary and valuable bird created as a gift by the Knights Templar of Malta in 1539.
At the end, Spade and Detective Polhaus have this bit of dialogue:

“Heavy. What is it?” Detective Polhaus
“The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.” Sam Spade

Spade’s final line in the movie resonated with me, stayed with me for a couple of days. For me, the film wasn’t just a noir mystery shrouded in murder, greed and sex, it was a metaphor for being creative. The falcon is the seed and the inspiration. All the intrigue that follows in the 20th century with Sam Spade is a result of the bird being created as a gift in the 16th century.
You have an idea (the falcon). Through trial and error and self-doubt and perseverance (Spade and villains), you create the final product (book/film/song/etc.). What motivates you to create something? What drives you to pursue it to the end?
As a writer, I am constantly asking myself questions while working on a project, whether it’s a novel or a script. This is especially true when I get stuck and I do get stuck. A lot. Years ago, I took a journalism class and, while I ultimately chose to not pursue the profession, I did learn something incredibly valuable and helpful to my creative writing.
The five W’s and one H. Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

Surprisingly, this is also helpful for when I’m drawing.

Back to the Falcon and Sam Spade’s classic final words. At the end of the movie, Polhaus has picked up the bird, which has been revealed to be a fake. He is surprised at how heavy it is for such a small statue. Spade’s words, while seeming to be positive, actually mean the opposite – the falcon symbolizes false hopes and broken dreams.

How is this about being creative? Because what we perceive to be false hopes and broken dreams are often redirecting us to look at the situation or project with a different perspective.
Who is this for, at the end of the day? Who do you need to satisfy first and foremost? Yourself.
Why is this important? Because it’s an expression of the self.
What is it about? What does it mean? Creative work means something different to the creator than it does to the viewer.
Where is this creative muse/inspiration? Everywhere you look, there’s a story, photograph, a work of art.
When do you do it? Right now would be a good time.

Recommended Reading/Viewing:
The Maltese Falcon (novel-1929) Dashiell Hammett
The Maltese Falcon (film-1941)
On Writing (2000; anniversary edition 2010) Stephen King

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Editor’s Note – this blog post is published concurrently on Citizens Journal VC

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