The Creative Brain And Other Bullshit

If you look close, you can see the creativity.

I was going to write a response to this article, but Chuck Wendig seems to have taken care of that for me, so just go read his instead. It has the added benefit of Urethral Bees. And if that doesn’t pique your interest, really, what are you doing with your life?

Instead, I’m going address another pervasive myth that creators of any kind have run across: the myth of the Creative Brain.

Raise your hand if you create—anything, from carpentry to cooking to handicrafts to sculpture, not just writing—and have heard this:

“I wish I could do that.”

“You were born with so much talent.”

And my personal favourite:

“Who even thinks of that?”*

What do all these statements have in common? They all assume the existence of a special type of mind, a creative type, which is different from a normal person’s. And, significantly, that this type is one that you are born with. Weren’t born like that? Fuck you, back of the Creativity Line.

Bullshit. No one is born creative. Or maybe the better way to look at is that no one is born uncreative. Life takes a certain amount of creativity, and you start right at the beginning, figuring out a way out of your crib and deciding if you can blame that mess on the dog. Children are creative. Just listen to one lie and you’ll be blown away by the breadth and depth of their deception. And by the way it doesn’t make sense, but that’s also creative. And awesome, even when they’re lying to your face about the ninjas that came from the ceiling vents to fight the dinosaurs from the basement and that’s how the lamp got broken.**

The difference between those kids and all the adults who mourn their lack of creativity is that no one tells the kids they can’t do it.***

Anyone can be creative. It’s just a matter of training your mind to think in certain ways. Ways that you, having grown out of dinosaur-fighting ninjas, probably think are dumb.

And that’s where the problem lies. People who think creative people are special forget that, for every idea that blows you away, we have hundreds, thousands, that are dumb. That don’t even make a lick of sense. That never pass the first test, which is: can I explain this to another human? ‘Should I’ is another important question, but that comes later.

You want the creativity, you have to be willing to be dumb. Silly. You can’t build the wall between ‘serious’ and ‘silly’ in your mind and expect things flow. You have to think the stupid things and not immediately push them away, because very clever things can often masquerade as stupid at first glance. Only by careful examination will you sort one from the other.

Best thing about this sort of thinking is that it’s never too late to start, if you really want it. Sure, it might be hard, but push against your brain boundaries and sooner or later they’ll give way.

And you never know: maybe you’ll like what’s on the other side of that wall more.

*I mostly like the undertone of horror with this one.

**For real, kids are awesome.

***All right, some people do, but they’re assholes.

Mind Games: Tricking Your Jerk Of A Brain Into Getting Started

It’s like a time bomb, except instead of killing you, it makes you a warming beverage.

Brains are weird things. They look like a plastic bag of worms left to die in a jell-o mould, but somehow they control everything you do.

And they contradict you! They work against you! You say you want something—like to eat healthy—and they somehow see to it that you find yourself ears-deep in a cupcake box again.

Aside from the gratuitous unfairness of all this, there are a few takeaways:

1. Your brain is not on your side. It is on its own, survival-based, side, which occasionally coincides with your side, but that doesn’t mean it won’t hamstring you every time you contradict it.

2. You can trick that little wormy bastard into doing what you want.

Ever meet people who claim to only be able to work under pressure? “It helps me concentrate”, they say, while you froth at the mouth and try to avoid cracking them one with a five-iron. Really what the looming deadline and the attendant pressure does is give them a way to short-circuit the part of their brain that procrastinates by presenting it with a worse alternative than having to do work: facing the consequences of not doing it. Which might include the five-iron again.

The good news is that you can borrow this trick. Or, if you’re one of the ‘work better under pressure’ brigade, you can use it for other things.

Play games with your brain. One I use all the time is called Race The Kettle. I drink a lot of tea, winter and summer. If I’m having trouble getting started—which, honestly, is about 40-50% of days, especially at this time of the winter when things get all grey—I put the kettle on. Then I have until it boils to get something done. Usually something around 400-500 words. Put the kettle on the stove, turn on the element, and…..GO.

And it works. Why? Because I’m cutting off the procrastination by imposing a short-term deadline. It might be as fake as a January tan, but it’s still there. And it gives me something else to focus on. Can I get it done before the kettle boils? Sounds hard, but maybe if I try really hard…

You get the idea.

Other games I play with myself while writing: Finish By Noon And You Can Start That New Book Over Lunch; Hit Word Count Before Your Doctor’s Appointment Because You Know He’ll Order Blood Work Again; You Have A Lunch Date So Get A Move On; and the always popular Finish The Scene Before The Coffee Wears Off.

Maybe you’re the type that responds to rewards; maybe you like the pressure of deadlines. Or maybe, like me, you need a new way of looking at the problem.

Or maybe I’m just bat-crap crazy. Do any of you play these mind games with yourself? Tell me about yours if you do. I swear to only steal them if I’m really desperate.

Yet Another Reason Writer’s Block Is Fucking Bullshit.

It was close to this. Good thing digital files don’t burn well.

Last week, I had something I haven’t had for a long time: I had writer’s block.

I didn’t know what it was. I was just staring at the screen like I was staring into Nietzsche’s abyss, except that while it might have been staring back at me, it sure as hell wasn’t saying anything. Everything I tried seemed like shit. Even the stuff I’d written the day or the week before seemed like shit. There was, in fact, a lot of shit around, and it seemed like I was responsible for creating most of it.

I was close to deleting a lot of it. The last chapter, for sure. And I did in fact throw about 10,000 words—about 40 pages, if you prefer to calculate that way—into the wood chipper I call The Purgatory File. It’s where stuff goes right before it gets deleted forever, so I can harvest its organs and tasty bits before digitally mulching the rest. Fuck this, I was thinking. It’s not worth saving.

It was not a good day.*

After I dumped all those words into the wood chipper, I fucked off. Again, unusual; I rarely quit before the word count’s done. But that day I didn’t want to look at it anymore. So I sat down on the couch to read.

But I never got past the first couple of pages, because as soon as I sat down, I fell asleep. For three fucking hours.

When I woke up—disoriented, with a book on my face and two cats pinning down my legs—I felt…better.** And when I read over what I’d written, imagine my shock when I realized that it didn’t suck.***

I didn’t have goddamn writer’s block. I was fucking sleep deprived.

The lessons to be learned here are three-fold:

1) Writers can’t be trusted. We can’t. It’s a fact. We’ve all got a platoon of jabbering, sharp-edged little goblin monkeys caged up inside our heads, and when those little bastards get loose, it’s hell up there. We lose all perspective and turn into whiny little sods. It’s annoying.

2) Your body is more than just a carry case for your brain. What it feels, all of you feels. So crappy sleep habits, bad eating, no exercise…all of that will reap dividends you don’t want. Take care of yourself and the work gets easier.

3) Writer’s block is still bullshit. It’s just a lack of something: confidence, technical skill, passion, or, in my case, sleep. Something. Solve the deficit, and writer’s block goes away.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some words to make up.


*I should point out that I have very few writing days like this. Most of mine are more the “rock and roll on the stereo, coffee in the belly, let’s get some words, motherfucker!” type. Which I prefer, but the neighbours probably don’t.
**I’m condensing for the sake of story here; it actually took another eleven hours sleep that night before I felt fully normal again.
***Most of it, anyway. A couple pieces were still garbage.

Static and Noise: Getting Off The Computer To Boost Creativity

English: Picture of San Francisco at Sunset. F...

It looks so peaceful before the Idea Beasts come to play. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a computer addiction.

Seriously. If there was a device that could be implanted in my eyeballs that allowed me 24/7 access to my computer, I’d do it.

So you can imagine how fucking difficult it is for me to take a break from that sweet, sweet glowing box. At the moment, I am taking a computer break. I’m still on it for writing these posts, of course, because the alternative of hand-writing it and then posting a picture of the paper seems a little too cutely hipster-ish for me. But I’m no longer spending most of the day on it: writing, editing, researching, digitally painting.

Not because I don’t love all those things. I do. God, I do. But the computer is full of noise: Twitter, news feeds, the Book of Faces,  YouTube. And then there’s the articles I need to read, and the notes I have to make on them, and the endless rabbit hole of information that I can follow so very, very far down.

I love noise and chaos. But some things need silence to grow, and the semi-ripe ideas I’m working on are among them. Too much static and they never get the brain runtime they need to come to fruition. They just get lost in the swirl of new information. If they’re every going to turn into anything worth writing–and by extension anything worth reading–then they need a little quiet space in which to turn from larvae to monsters that can knock down San Francisco.

So. Time for a break.

Now, before you abandon your internet connection entirely, a caveat: I can only take this break because most of the things I’m doing right now can be done offline. The re-outlining of the novel works best on paper or index cards. I have no short stories in the first stage of writing or editing; instead, I have ideas that I need to work on. Nothing is awaiting final editing before being returned to editors. And I’ve switched to sketch books and pens for a while instead of digital for art. If I had other things that had to be done, then I wouldn’t be able to unplug. And some of those ideas I’m working on would probably die.

The circle of life, baby.

This whole ‘no unnecessary computer’ deal may seem to run contrary to other things I say. Especially the bit about reading a lot and letting a brain compost pile build up so that the ideas bubble to the surface like swamp gas. Two responses to that: 1) what in the name of Primordial Chaos gave you that idea that I ever make sense? Seriously? You’re expecting logic here? And, 2) one thing does not work all the time. Knowing when to switch it up because it’s the right move—as opposed to switching because what you’re working on is hard—is an instinct you need to cultivate. And right now, mine is saying, get the fuck off the computer, woman. Go lie on the couch with a notebook instead. That’s what has to be done now. Worry about tomorrow at the next sunrise. This is what will work today.

So, riddle me this, word herders: what will work for you today?

*A friend of mine once created an RPG character that is so obsessed with information she has a staff of hundreds to sort it and send it directly to her cybernetic implants. That character? Apparently loosely based on my information habits. I can’t decide if it’s an insult or a marvelous pastiche**. Though I suppose it could be both.

**Or an attempt to tell me that I creep him the hell out.

7 Non-Writing Things Writers Should Do

English: Turning a hot compost pile

My brain is a steaming pile of facts and paranoia.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. Read. Seriously, how do you expect to make good words without reading some good words first? That’s like expecting to be a world-class chef without eating. Except then you’d also be dead.

2. Exercise. I know, I know: you want to write so that you have a legitimate excuse for sitting on your ass in your pyjamas all day,  having candy pumped directly into your veins. Fuck off. Your body is more than just the carrying case for your brain. It’s the entire sensory apparatus that you use to take in new information. And it’s a hell of a lot harder to create well when you feel like shit all the time.
But in case you need more convincing, here, try this: exercise improves cognitive function. Move your ass and get smarter. Plus, better sleep. And the ability to fend for yourself in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, because I am not carrying your ass.

3. Have Human Interaction. Writing is solo*, so we spend a lot of time alone. Make the effort and talk to another human being occasionally. Tell yourself you’re doing research if you have to. But connect. It’ll make you less creepy. And make your written interactions more realistic.

4. Sleep. You don’t sleep, your brain pickles itself in toxic waste. That’s science, yo. Chronic poor sleep with bottom out your creativity. Nothing wrong with the occasional all-nighter—fuck knows I’ve done them myself, when the heat is on and the words are pumping—but don’t make a habit of it. Get your sleep and be more coherent. Not to mention less likely to wrap your car around a tree.

5. Learn Stuff. Any stuff. A new language. A new sport. How to make pho. What the typical meal for the Chinese Emperor was circa 1543. Learn stuff, and toss it into the compost pile of your imagination. Let it ferment and make new shiny ideas for you. And, you know, have fun in the meantime.

6. Create. Not just write. Try another creative avenue: drawing, cooking, landscape gardening, singing, interpretive badger arranging. You’ll have fun, for one. And, for another, you will discover that creativity, like all the best cannibals, feeds best on creativity.

7. Find People Who Aren’t Assholes. People who won’t make fun of you for writing. People who understand that having an imagination is not an affront to the right-minded. People who are open. They don’t have to be writers themselves, but they should understand that what you’re doing is awesome. Because it is.

*For the most part. Some people work with collaborators and co-writers. But your cat is neither.

The Dust-Bunnies of Doubt

Dust bunnies

Just like doubt: grey, floppy, useless. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m 30,000 words into this rewrite, and I think I’ve made a mistake.

Not like a fucking typing error, either, but a mistake that changes the entire plot. And some of the characters. And maybe makes some things exist that shouldn’t. And definitely made at least one character exist that shouldn’t.

So I’m staring at this manuscript, wondering if I’ve damaged it beyond repair, wondering if I’ll ever get this one finished, wondering if it’s even worth going on with.

This is a crisis. Or, to a writer, Friday.

Doubts are like dust-bunnies: they’re mostly made of pieces of you and they’re not useful. And just when you think you’ve got them all, you spot another one lurking under the furniture. And then another. And then a herd. But if you don’t keep on top of them, sooner or later you’ll be drowning in them. Or something. Is that how it works with dust-bunnies? I’ll admit I’m not sure and I’m so not getting further distracted by Googling it.

I wish I knew some way to stop the doubts. They slow me down. They’re the opposite of coffee. Fear-juice, designed to make your brain less functional and reduce the day’s word count.

Tom Pollock wrote a great piece on this feeling entitled “The Fear Never Gets Any Easier” over at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog. Go read it. It’s an excellent summation of how this feels. The line that sums it up for me is this:

I’ve spent a year and a half telling myself I can do this, and I’m terrified of finding out I was wrong.

Writers are stage magicians in their own heads. We wave our hands and say the words and wink at the assistant, but we know that it’s all an illusion. That one mis-step is the difference between flawless and broken. So sometimes it seems like it’d be a hell of a lot easier to not make that step. You can’t trip if you don’t move.

How do you get past it? I don’t know. I wish I had some magic advice to give about how to put the brain goblins to rest, if only because then I  could take that advice myself. But I don’t, and I suspect it’s because there’s no magic formula.

So, how do you get past the fear and the doubts and all the other shit? You just do. You go on punching the keys or scrawling the pages. You move on. Even when you don’t want to. Especially when you don’t want to.

It’s going to be a long day.

Stack The Deck: Tips For Getting Started

Truck stuck in the mud

*SpinSpinSpin* I may be stuck here. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Captain Marvel t-shirt, red lipstick, something good on the stereo, and two cups of coffee in my stomach. I have done all I can to stack today’s deck in my favour.

And sometimes you do what you have to in order to get started. Because we can be an incorrigibly lazy species.

So, in honour of this morning and how blurry my brain feels, here are my top tricks for getting started:

1. Caffeine. Apparently I’m feeling obvious today.
Actually, the point I want to make about caffeine, in whatever delivery system you find most palatable, is that is shouldn’t be a crutch. You shouldn’t need it to get started. But on those days when it feels like there’s sand in your brain and ice in your fingers, it can sometimes provide just enough of a jolt to get things moving.

2. Something Else. Here’s my hierarchy of daily writing, ranked from least amount of brain power required to most: journal entries, cosmetics copy, emails, blog posts, new fiction writing, rewrites of aged fiction.  If I can’t do the one I’m supposed to be doing, I switch to something on a lower difficult setting. Just until I get warmed up. Then I use the momentum of that to get started on what I really need to be doing.
Caveat: don’t get bogged down doing a low reward task at the expense of something else. For example, I usually switch to the cosmetics copy first because, while it doesn’t require a whole lot of energy due to the system I’ve set up, it is high reward (I get paid for it).
Caveat the second: don’t switch to something totally mindless. That’s why I didn’t include the mileage logs and other paperwork I do for my day job in that list. Useful tasks, in the sense that I earn money for them, but they’re absolutely balls for getting the brain going.

3. Music. I rarely work without music playing. But for difficult days, I choose movie soundtracks. No one is better at manipulating emotions through sound that the composers who score movies. Hell, that’s how they make their fucking living.
I favour big movies with big scores that make you feel like the you’re going to save the world all my yourself. For the last month, it’s been Pacific Rim.* Using that type of music makes…goddamn it, it just makes me feel more inspired. Like I can do this. And it’s going to be awesome.
Other favourites for difficult days: AC/DC, power ballads**, and opera (lately it’s been Madame Butterfly).

4. Outside the Lines: This is a weird one. I pull it out when I can’t seem to get started on a particular scene. Instead of bashing my head against that wall, I write something non-canon. Something that maybe could have happened but didn’t, something that’s never shown in the story itself, a random conversation between a couple of characters…that sort of thing. A lot of times doing that will unstick whatever jammed itself into my brain and get things moving. At which point I switch back to whatever the hell I was trying to do.
Bonus: those non-canon snippets can sometimes become new plot points and scenes themselves, or just give me a better understanding for certain characters.

…Right. I think this unstuck me. I’m going to do more rewrites now. Cheers.

*Also awesome for running music.
**Sometimes I sing along. I’m sure the neighbours love it.

Cleaning Day At The Brain House

A number of cleaning brushes.

Where’s the pick axe? And the flamethrower? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hate clutter. In my house, if something gets in my way enough, I have to either find a place for it or get rid of it before I take it out into the backyard and set fire to it. My house doesn’t have to be perfectly organized*, it doesn’t have to be spotlessly clean, but it does have to be fucking functional.

I feel like there’s a mental analogue to this: mental clutter, if you will. My head is organized kind of like a house. Though, given the size and confusing byways when I picture it, a labyrinth is more likely. In all those rooms and corridors there are Things. Household Things and errands go in the hall. Family Things in the parlour. Writing Things in the massive, conflicting maze of offices, which twist around each other and have secret passages and background music and some kind of fucking monster-thing that lives in the ceiling.**

But the Brain House is just like the Real Life House: leave it alone long enough and stuff…drifts. Old glasses end up on the coffee table, a file folder of tax stuff in the dining room, a half-knitted sock next to the computer. Maybe I left it there on my way to do something else. Or, and this is an increasingly probable theory, maybe it moves itself when I’m not looking.

Periodically, the Brain House becomes cluttered with bits and pieces of leftover projects, half-formed ideas, incomplete paintings, unfulfilled obligations, and all the other assorted mental detritus that accumulates upstairs. And so, periodically, I have to clean it out.

Which is what I did last week. I took a week off from new obligations and got through some of the backlog and put everything back where it belongs. And, while I was at it, I took the time to clean out some old thoughts, some old habits, some pieces of mental garbage that no longer served a purpose.  Bad writing habits included.

So now I start again, in a freshly cleaned Brain House. All the surfaces sparkling. All ready for new projects and new ideas, without having to worry about tripping over some junk left from the last project, or some half-formed stillborn piece of shit I no longer want to work on.

It feels good.

So, tell me, fellow idea wranglers, what sort of state do you think your Brain House is in? Anything up there that can go? Anything that’s just taking up space and slowing you down? Some misconceptions, maybe? Something that needs to go back to the Idea Maturation Chamber for a few rounds? Or just some bad fucking habits that have never been reevaluated and exposed for the expired, useless pieces of mental garbage they are?

Take some time; clean the toys out of your attic. You might just find space you never knew you had. And once you find that space, you’ll be surprised at how big you can think.

*Though that helps.
**I call him Bentley.

About Last Night

Human brain NIH

OH HAI. YOU BUSY? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Brain: HEY.

Me: Zzzzzz.

Brain: OH HEY.

Me: Zzzz….buh? Wha’s goin’ on?


Me: Burglars? Fire? Aliens?


Me: …It’s quarter to four in the goddamned morning.


Me: I am going to kill you, even if it kills us both. Because you are an annoying little git.


Me:…Story ideas? You woke me up in the asshole of the night to show me story ideas? Can you not see that I was sleeping?


Me: I’ll have to go to the other room. Can’t you hold on to it until morning? You know, proper morning, not this cut-rate pre-dawn bull shit?


Me:….Did you just call me—?


Me: (getting out of bed) I hate you.


Me: (going to find notepad) Die in a fire.

Cat: Oh, are you awake now? Awesome. Feed me, servant, lest I rend your feet with my claws.

Me: (writing) I’m going to start mainlining coffee.

Biting Off Ideas: The Short Story

Larry Ward had the voice for Star Wars villain...

Bring me Solo and all the free time you have for the next three weeks. And a diet coke. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As mentioned, I spent most of the last week or so working on short stories. Right now I’ve got a big ol’ ball of ideas that I need to sort. I think of it like a ball of yarn made up of different pieces of other, lesser, yarns, all knotted together into one immense piece of string. And there’s floor dirt caught up in there, and cat hair, and pieces of paper, and chewed-on bones.* From that, I have to unwind just enough to make a story.

The problem, of course, is that the ball of yarn wants to unravel. Ideas keep growing. One of them looks at another, and then before you know it, I’ve got a whole slew of other ideas. Or the first one just ate a bunch of smaller ones, so it’s now a huge, lumpy, Jabba the Hut idea.

My metaphors are all over the place. This is what happens when I’m working in Idea Brain.

Short stories are tricky territory. You need a good idea, but it has to be the right size. Under 5,000 words is a good general rule. And some stories just want to keep growing. They want to stretch. They want to eat the radioactive ooze and come ashore as giant, stomping novels, laying waste to all before them.

Which is great. Except when you’re trying to meet the submission guidelines for an anthology.

I have a solution: planning. Not just planning the story, but all the other shit that’s going on in the background. Because the problem is really that, in order to write a good story, you have to have good characters. And those characters should have some kind of life that preceded the story.** So they push the boundaries and the word count because they’re trying to become real.

Let ‘em. It’ll add to your final story, and you can keep it under the word count.

Here’s an example. This is the planning I’ve been doing for the short story that’s first on the list. You can click to make it bigger, if for some reason you want an in-depth look into my head.

Screen Shot 2013-01-24 at 1.56.59 PM

Behold the awesome majesty that is my brain at work.

No, I did not colour-code everything just for you. I’m that anal-retentive on my own.

The only part of that map that’s the actual story is the little cluster of red ones in the top left corner. Yup. That’s it. Everything else is background, world building, character back stories, mythology…stuff that will only make it into the final project as whispers and shadows.

This is how I keep ideas manageable. And never think of all this shit as wasted work. One, it adds to the finished story in ways you can’t imagine. It makes it feel like a window into a world instead of a recursive loop of self-contained plot. And two, if you ever want to revisit the characters or the world, like in the old Sword and Sorcery stories, they’re right there waiting for you.

So let ’em become real. It’ll pay back in terms of realism. And, let us not fucking forget, it’s fun as hell.

(Update: in spite of my comment here, I did get an official rejection letter from Harper Collins Voyager this week. It came after the deadline, but I still appreciate the effort. So now they’re officially on the board. Score for this year is 0-1. Bring it on.)

*Not sure who did the chewing. Maybe one of the cats. Maybe me.
**Whether or not they had a life that extends past the story really depends on how the plot goes. My characters have about a 50-50 shot.