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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

Argument against the human body being the product of intelligent design #234978: lack of progress bars.

I’m bad at a lot of things I’d like to be less bad at. Now, the part where that takes hundreds of hours of effort to make tiny incremental improvements to your skill level, I get. But I’m also painfully aware of the possibility that, after putting hundreds of hours of effort into something, I won’t have achieved anything worth crowing about at the end of it all. That has to be possible as well, right?

My base level of talent at, say, drawing, is so low that, even if I worked really hard at it, to the same degree as other people who’ve practised long enough to get really good (which, let’s face it, is unlikely), I’m not convinced I’d make anything like enough progress for it to be worthwhile. Because that incremental improvement is basically just a rumour at this stage. It’s an urban legend about something that’s happened to other people but never been directly observed.

If I could just watch that progress bar slowly, slowly ticking forward toward my next level-up as I work at it, I wouldn’t keep deciding that my latest pet project is futile and giving up six times as a day.

Again, I’m not objecting to the fact that learning new skills takes a long time and a great deal of effort. Progress is allowed to be slow, and hard work is the most rewarding kind. I’m young enough that it’s not like I don’t have thousands of hours available to try getting good at a few different things, but the suspicion that my achievement level is remaining at precisely zero despite my actions is inescapable.

Just blindly hoping that it’s all going somewhere, anywhere, isn’t enough. My brain needs an XP-counter implant, dammit.

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Man, this place has been turning into one big, clunky obits column lately. Stay with it though, I’m making a different point this time.

Jay Lake was a widely acclaimed and fairly prolific sci-fi and fantasy writer. He won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in Science Fiction the year he turned 40, cranked out ten novels and literally hundreds of published short stories, and died today of cancer, just shy of his 50th birthday.

This isn’t another of those “personal reflections on death” posts that I’ve done for beloved pets in the past. I didn’t know Jay at all; my reaction on learning of his death was an “Oh yeah, that guy… I think.” I’ve not read his books; I vaguely recall quite enjoying some of his stories being read to me in the past, but I never explored him enough to call myself a fan. He’s remembered with admiration and respect by people whom I respect and admire. By all accounts he was a great writer and a fine chap, and my thoughts are with his family.

Some of my thoughts, anyway. Other parts of my brain are more self-interestedly and internally directed right now.

***

I’ve been saying for a while now that, whether or not writing is the thing I truly and honestly want to dedicate my life to and try making a career out of, I’m determined to at least give it a go. To spend six months or a year seriously putting the hours in, devoting myself to actually working on this as if it were something I were passionate about, and see where it takes me.

It may not work out, and I may just officially draw a line under it after a brief burst of effort. I might decide, you know what, it’s a fun pastime, there’s some pleasure to be had doodling a few paragraphs of a germ of an idea now and then, but it’s not worth making this The Big Thing. There are other things I’d rather be doing with the bulk of my time.

That could be the end result – but at least then I’d have tried. Not even having a go, to see if I could make a success out of it, is what I feel I’d regret most, years or decades down the line.

Sometimes I think this is a more intellectually honest approach to going about finding one’s vocation. Other times, I feel like I’m hedging, downplaying things, in case I try and I fail and I feel embarrassed at how much I talked about committing to my creative dreams from which I’ve now bailed out in shame and ignominy. Eh, I dunno. The point is, wherever it goes, I’m going to try and do this.

Starting, like, now.

***

I’d been putting all this off until after the move. We’ve been waiting months for the solicitors and mortgage underwriters – and all the other hordes of people who apparently need to get involved when you decide you’d like to go and live somewhere else – to get their shit together, and things are definitely making progress. But my plan to wait until I’m all settled into my nice new study, to arrange everything neatly once life has calmed down a bit, and then start working on the stuff I want to achieve with my time on earth, is a bullshit idea and I’ve always known it. This is the broken, backwards logic of people who buy exercise equipment and then start trying to induce in themselves a habit of regular exercise.

Smokers are more likely to quit successfully if they just arbitrarily pick a moment and say “Right, I’m done,” than if they plan for some point in the future after which things are going to change, and imbue that moment with significance (New Year’s Resolutions are the worst, you guys). Well, this is my arbitrarily chosen moment, somewhat inspired by Jay Lake’s passing, in a way that I hope isn’t crass or insensitive to connect to him. I’m not setting myself up as some kind of spiritual successor of his; I’ll consider myself gloriously lucky and undeserving if I ever approach his levels of success and productivity. This isn’t really about him, after all, and the eulogising should be left to those who knew and loved him.

But it so happened that he was the final domino which stirred me to action. Regardless of what prompted it, I think it’s about damn time. I’m convincing myself I’m busy making other plans, and meanwhile life is happening to me. So I’m starting this today. Because it’s not quite as good as yesterday, but it’s better than tomorrow.

***

It’s important to note that I still mostly suck as a writer. I might be able to decide spontaneously that I’m going to start trying hard, but I can’t apply the same resolve to instantly become good. I’ve got a lot of work and a lot of learning to do, and chances are good that the first results anyone will see of this bold, energetic, self-indulgent tirade about committing to this project, will be a few more badly thought-out blog posts a couple of hundred words long, and regular complaints about how I’m tired and everything sucks, none of which will in any way justify all this hot air.

I will be entirely with you as you inevitably ask: “Really, that’s it? You bluster about grabbing your creative energies by the allegorical balls, and this is the output you were so excited about?”

I’m going to write a lot of unremarkable shite, which should have everyone wondering if I wouldn’t be wasting my time less if I were studying for a qualification that might further my accountancy career prospects instead.

I anticipate that I will be asking myself that a lot, over the coming months.

And I’m going to keep writing it anyway.

Because what if I can fight my way through the amateurish quagmire of mediocrity, and make it out to the other side? What if, after putting in enough effort, I could eventually approach that glorious realm, that promised land: the world of being a writer who occasionally stops feeling like they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing, and whose output is total crap only like ninety percent of the time, maybe even eighty-five?

I can’t pass up the chance to at least try reaching for such a beautiful dream.

***

It starts here. I’ve read enough books and articles on procrastination and creativity to know all the tricks and mind-hacks, at least on an intellectual level, and I’ve made enough notes to remind myself of them whenever I fail to put them into practice (which will be always).

I’m going to get myself a notebook, so that I can always be writing wherever. And also, I don’t know, bigger pockets to carry it in, or something. Actually I can probably type on my phone as fast as I can scribble awkwardly on a notebook while hunching over to lean on my knees as I write. Scratch that one.

I’m going to stop letting thoughts go unrecorded, no matter how banal. Following through on the banal is how you nurture your capacity to pour out the barely above average.

I’ve deleted Candy Crush from my phone exactly two days after installing it, because I’ve learned for about the seventh time that I can’t be trusted to use things like that solely for passing idle moments which would not otherwise have been productively spent, without letting them turn into time-sinks of their own. (See also: Kongregate. Or rather, don’t, if you have anything you need to get done ever again.)

I’m going to have a grown-up and useful and awesome conversation with my wife, about adapting our shared daily routine somewhat around my new stupid obsession in a way that suits both of us, because we totally win at being married.

And most importantly of all, I’m going to reward myself for writing all this with a cup of tea and a biscuit right now.

And then I’ll come back and write something else. And so on.

Seeya.

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But it’s important.

But it sucks.

I write short stories, and every so often I go through a brief phase of submitting them to a few professional markets. I’ve started getting quite good at being rejected. It’s something I seem to have a real knack for, in fact, when I apply myself.

Anyone with even a modicum of professional writing experience in any comparable field will tell you that rejection is an important part of the process, even a positive part. And of course they’re right. If you’re getting rejected, it means you’re putting yourself out there, and if it keeps happening, it means you’re demonstrating the kind of persistence which sometimes gets rewarded with success. Ploughing on through the “no”s is a crucial part of making it to your first “yes”.

Harry Potter was turned down by I can’t be bothered to look up how many publishers before Rowling sold her first novel, Edison proudly discovered ten thousand ways not to plagiarise the lightbulb, you get the idea. Failing means you’re on the right track. It’s kinda obvious, but can be difficult to take on board.

It’s a philosophy I’ve repeated many times, and embraced in theory, but I’ve not really examined how well I do at it in practice. How much do my instinctive thoughts and reactions, in the moment, actually match up with the ideal?

The particular example of writing rejections doesn’t cause me too much neurotic stress. But some kinds of perceived failure have a much greater tendency to rankle. Sometimes getting it wrong really doesn’t feel like useful progress.

One of my problems seems to be with an unhelpful aversion to wasting my time. For instance: I’ve been trying to untangle and organise the plotting for a mostly second-drafted novel lately. (The one about a zombie and a vampire who run a detective agency, of which I bashed out a first draft a couple of NaNoWriMos ago, if you’re interested.) One thing I’ve done this week, in an effort to organise all the chapters, is to print out a series of short scene descriptions onto small bits of paper, and to blu-tack them to a whiteboard, so as to arrange them into some sort of coherent narrative.

This may all have been a colossal waste of time.

I’m still getting confused over what makes narrative sense to happen when. It hasn’t instantly resolved any of my structural or pacing issues. I’m not sure it’s going to be of any more help keeping track of future changes than the notes I’d already made on the computer. It looks pretty, I suppose, and it’s all neatly colour-coded, but I’ve a suspicion that may all be a load of toss.

This isn’t one of those times when I’m using pointless distractions to avoid actually writing, and really I just need to just sit down and get the fuck on with it. I do need to do something to figure out the sodding structure of the thing, and just staring at walls of text doesn’t seem to be helping. Sticking notes to a board is as valid a way of having a go as any other. But it still really bugs me that it might not have been a useful way to go.

I’m finding it especially hard to put the whole “failure as a learning experience” idea into practice in this particular scenario. It just feels like I put in some effort and made zero progress anywhere, and this is deeply infuriating and off-putting.

What’s really ridiculous, though, is the way I keep falling back on the worst coping strategy ever.

It’s taken me a while to even get as far as the whiteboard, because rather than struggle with something that seems likely to end in failure – rather than even contemplate it seriously, sometimes – I’ll just do something else that isn’t even meant to be productive. Those same minutes I’m worrying about wasting on some pointless wall-chart writing aid, turn into half an hour on Kongregate, or watching TV, or something else equally passive.

This way, I don’t just risk getting nothing useful achieved with my time, I guarantee it. But I won’t get that feeling of having strived for something and then failed to achieve an immediately measurable result. So it feels like less of a loss.

You can see exactly what my brain’s doing. It’s trying to avoid that feeling of having wasted time doing something that failed. It wants to protect itself so much from that unpleasant sensation, that distractions which fail to achieve any of my goals become acceptable. Which is colossally unhelpful of it. I mean, this is not-opening-bank-statements level thinking. It’s lamentable.

And it’s going to take some serious practice before I get over it.

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Today I bring you a different kind of grumpy intolerance, and also some poetry. I’ll probably be a prosaic hippy again later.

So Twitter is this place where people like being funny and making self-referential jokes about stuff. Other shit goes on too, but it’s the bit with all the parodies and creatively amusing pop culture references I’m interested in now.

In particular, there have been any number of accounts created in the name of fictional or historical characters, which emulate their style of speaking and writing. One of my favourite examples from days of English yore is Dr Samuel Johnson, and there are plenty more of that ilk.

And while much of this is great fun to follow and join in with, you can probably guess (even if you aren’t familiar with Sturgeon’s Law that predicts it) that a lot of these accounts are crap.

I don’t want to pick on Shakespeare Lyrics in particular – there are surely numerous worse offenders out there, and there’s nothing that offensive about some dismal “songs in archaic language” – but it’s had the ill fortune of irritating me with its unimaginativeness a couple of times now. Also, it has over 30,000 follows, and got over a thousand retweets for this:

We art never, ever, ever, becoming reunited

Seriously? That’s a sufficiently authentic Shakespearean adaptation of a Taylor Swift lyric to impress over a thousand of you?

I can’t find the tweet now that first bugged me a couple of months ago (I’m not entirely certain it was the same account), but it was a fairly similar cut-and-paste job of some olde worlde vocab into a couple of lines of Sir Mixalot. More or less off the top of my head, I tweeted an example of how it’s meant to be done:

“Rebecca, such a strumpet do I spy! / A hip-hop minstrel’s wench she doth resemble!”

“A curvèd rear’s most pleasing to mine eye / On this point, ’tis beyond me to dissemble.”

Now, I’m not going crazy, that’s pretty good, right? Assuming you know the song, that’s a recognisable paraphrasing of “I like big butts and I cannot lie”, and it’s in actual iambic pentameter, right? It’s not just me?

Anyway nobody noticed because I’m not a Twitter megastar and life moved on.

Today Kirsty goaded me by retweeting another effort from the same account:

Oh Mickey thou art indeterminately divine, thou art indeterminately divine thee explode my cerebellum, greetings Mickey, greetings Mickey.

Fucksakes.

Okay, first: scientists didn’t even begin to understand the cerebellum’s function until the 1800’s, so it’s unlikely Shakespeare would have mentioned it at all, let alone used it as a casual synonym for “mind”.

Secondly, there’s still nothing that scans. You’re just swapping in some high-falutin’ words with no context and expecting us to be impressed. And thousands of people are, depressingly. Currently 8,129 retweets on that one. Fucking hell. I should start myself one of these accounts.

But mostly, this kind of thing is exactly what would run through any mentally functional person’s mind within seconds of considering how to cross the memes of “contemporary songs people like quoting” and “Shakespeare talk”. “We art never, ever, ever becoming reunited” is what you do to make an anachronism of We Are Never Getting Back Together without even trying. Anyone could do it to that level.

So I had a proper go at turning some modern pop lyrics into very loosely Shakespearean-style poetry, in a way that not just anyone could do without applying some effort, not that they’d necessarily want to. If I truly cared about my art, I’d have stretched it out into a proper sonnet, but life is short.

Dear ladies unrestrained by marriage yet:
If romance be your driving aspiration,
And someday true love falls into your net
And makes you raise your arms in celebration,
Do not risk losing what you sought so long,
And ever tighter to it you must cling.
Draw inspiration from that old love song:
Thou shouldst ensnare their digit with a ring.

That’s how we play in MY house, bitches.

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Backstory is here, if you need it.

I’m still deeply an atheist, but I’ve spent the last few days praying.

The first couple of days, I was speaking silently into a void, asking someone who isn’t there if they’d talk to me.

Today, I got an answer.

It went like this:

Yeah, I’m God. Stop bowing your head like that you dozy prick, even the ones who believe in me look stupid when they do that. Now go and set fire to a neighbour’s dog.

I’m not being flippant. A voice in my head said that to me. For all I know, it sounds just like God.

Fortunately, it also sounds exactly like what’s going on in my mind when I’m coming up with dialogue for a story. This is a pretty familiar sensation to me, and is a far better explanation for the above urgings toward canine arson. It’d be worrying if this experiment worked, I discovered God, and it turned out that he wanted me to become violently antisocial.

It certainly sounds like the kind of thing my brain would come up with, to make some sort of a point. But that kind of creativity is something that goes on in my head without my making any conscious effort to be creative.

So here’s what I’m wondering: Is this unconscious/subconscious/whatever kind of creativity the sort of thing people might mistake for the voice of God?

I’m not claiming to have come up with an explanation for all of religion, here, but it’s hardly controversial to suggest that at least some “religious experiences” are entirely generated within people’s minds. And, given how complex and unintuitive human consciousness is, it’s no surprise that thoughts sometimes bubble up which don’t seem to be ours, which aren’t a direct result of any conscious decision-making.

If you’re sad, desperate, lonely, and really want to be reassured, then perhaps your imagination will come up with something to say – concocted from your own memories and hopes – which has the character of a benevolent external presence to it.

For many, the idea of an “inner critic” is more familiar, a persistent voice somewhere in your head which regularly undercuts and criticises everything you do. No matter how clearly you understand that this is a manifestation of your own self-doubt, it doesn’t feel like it’s really you saying these terrible things about yourself. The words and ideas appear in your head unbidden.

Creativity is not easy for us to intuitively understand, and much of the language of inspiration is shared with spirituality. Voices in your head, of one sort or another, are a part of what it means to be conscious. It’s the kind of thing people have turned to religion to explain in the past, and it can still trip us up today.

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A quick anecdote. Don’t worry, I won’t try to pluralise it and call it “data”.

I don’t really have many early memories. I suppose there are vague impressions of schools I must have been at sometime before I was 7 that still linger in my head, but nothing very concrete, or particularly memorable. But a memory of what might have been my earliest foray into philosophy popped up and prodded me in the brain again recently.

I’ve no idea how young I was, but certainly young. Possibly I was going to Sunday School at that point, and was starting to get my head around the notion of religion. My dad had some kind of book, which set out to answer a handful of simple questions about religion, possibly about the Church of England specifically. It was short, but hit all the basics. Sort of like a precursor to the Alpha Course literature, maybe.

One of the later chapters was titled “What made God?”, and this was the bit I was actually interested in. I remember thinking (at, let’s say, age 5) that this was the thing that most needed to be sorted out, before the whole God business could stop being a rather annoying enigma. I mean, what was this almighty being doing there? Where’d he come from? How had this state of affairs come to be? Surely that was the important bit.

It didn’t have a very good answer. It just sort of waffled a bit and concluded that we don’t really know. I was not happy.

You know, in the re-telling, this sounds rather strange. “What made God?” is a very curious way for a religiously proselytising book to phrase the question. It makes it sound like they’re treating God as if he were some kind of natural phenomenon, an effect whose cause can be determined, perhaps in accordance with some set of universal laws. Which I suppose is how I was imagining the answer would go.

It’s a common theist claim that the Universe’s very existence needs explanation, and that God is the only satisfactory answer. It’s a common atheist rebuttal that this just shifts the problem back a step, and only complicates things further, because now you have another, grander entity whose provenance needs accounting for. The usual theist re-rebuttal involves an attempted explanation of why God is a special case who doesn’t need to have been deliberately created. I don’t recall ever, since that first book, encountering a theistic argument which acknowledges that God’s inception itself is a valid and as yet unanswerable conundrum. They always prefer imagining some sort of loophole.

Which makes me wonder just how distortedly I’m misremembering the whole thing.

I still haven’t found an actual answer to the question. It’s not quite the same question I’d be asking these days, but in practical terms there’s not much difference. It grates less now, though. I remember being quite annoyed at the time. This was the kind of thing people should know, after all.

So, there’s that. I’m hoping to become wordier in future weeks, because I’m going to have a go at The Artist’s Way, a book and course on nurturing creativity. I was inspired to join in with this by Mur Lafferty (who, by the way, is awesome), and was only made slightly wary by her warnings about its spiritual approach. There is an explanation in the preface of the book about what the author does and doesn’t mean by “God”, and how we can choose to interpret the idea of a creative force any way we like, which I imagine I’ll be fine with… but by page 1 of the book proper she’s using phrases like “spiritual chiropractic” which unavoidably make me wince a little. Still, I plough on. Writing more words is never bad.

I keep meaning to end some of my posts with an audience question, to engage people a bit more in whatever I’m rambling about, but too often I forget. So, questions for discussion:

1.) Do you have any childhood memories of early, primitive philosophical thoughts? Did anything about the whole God business not sit right with you from a very early age? Were you dissecting grown-ups’ theological claims before you could tie your own shoes, and do you find that they haven’t come up with anything better in the years since then?

2.) Do you have any techniques that work for you to make creativity happen, in whatever direction you prefer to create things? Have you tried The Artist’s Way, or anything like it?

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