Sep 062014

Here in the U.S. kids are heading back to school after summer break. I’d like to share a few books about artistic young people to go with the back-to-school theme.

Wingman by Daniel Pinkwater tells the story of a young artistic boy who embarks on imaginative and daring adventures to escape his hostile, hateful elementary school.

Dr. Bird’s Advice For Sad Poets by Evan Roskos is the story of an enxious, depressed high-school student who sseeks solace in Walt Whitman, photography, and hugging trees.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell is the story of Cath going off to college to become a fiction writer, only to find that making friends, creating, and simply surviving day after day are too much. I especially love the characters in this book. I find a tremendous amount of heart in Rowell’s novels.

If you’re not into books written for a younger audience, maybe it’s a good time to revisit a favorite from years ago. Perhaps a book, album, play, or painting comes to mind that meant a lot to you when you were young. Take a little time to go back to a fond experience to renew yourself.

Nov 082013

I like to think of creativity exercises as short-term tools. They’re not really solutions in themselves, but they can break habits, build habits, and help the heart and mind break away from malaise.

I’m talking about creativity exercises such as: think of a color, then write down ten objects that have the color. Then write a story plot using those objects. Or, take a musical phrase and play it in all twelve keys, then play it backwards in all twelve keys. Sure you could write a story or a piece of music this way, but usually the process is much more imaginative than that.

It reminds me of my religious life from many years ago. People would really get into the rules and procedures of prayer, but it seemed rare that anyone actually achieved a prayerful life. I might not have it right, and maybe folks were experiencing something far more substantial than what I saw. But it seemed to me that prayer was usually about certain physical acts, like closing eyes, bowing heads, folding hands or linking hands with others. It was about words, lots of tedious words, despite Jesus’ teaching on that subject. And Jesus also taught that praying in public places was a waste of time, yet folks seemed so into saying verbose prayers in public almost any chance they got.

Something similar goes on with musicians and writers. One of the hardest things for me when I’m teaching music lessons is to help a student simply relax and fall into playing music. There’s always lots of discussion about buying more instruements and accessories, even though the student already has too much stuff. It seems like the idea of playing music is more appealing than the actual experience of it. I think it seems like the work that goes into learning an instrument holds some kind of dread. It might go back to how nasty and boring our assignments were in school as kids. It might have to do with something similar with parents, with religious education and services, how we’re taught as kids to dread the stuff that everyone says is so important.

By the way, if you are reading this and you have taken lessons from me, please don’t think I’m describing you specifically. Almost all the music students I’ve had over the years have struggled to find happiness in making their music.

For writers, there are exercises and books about writing. There’s worry about writing. There are all kinds of classes and activities around writing, even finishing an MFA. All useful in some ways, but I think the best attitude is to see all that as short-term. Those are little tools to help get things started, but you’re not writing until you’re writing. Just write. Go ahead. If you don’t know what to write about, then wait. Take a walk. Don’t think about it, just wait. Don’t worry, you’ll get some ideas sooner or later.

I recently ran across a mention of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies” cards. I heard about them many years ago, and it’s a very cool idea. You pick a card, and it points you to some new direction for your current work. Here are some examples:

  • A line has two sides.
  • Do nothing for as long as possible.
  • Question the heroic approach
  • Ask people to work against their better judgement.

(This text came from

I’ve never actually owned a set of these cards, but the idea is enough for me. Just do something different, change the monotony, or repeat the unpredictableness, or just launch out into some place. Go eat a sandwich. Go find an animal to say hello to. Think inside the box. Think outside the box. And then eat the box.

Mar 142013

A dozen is quite the popular number. Donuts, eggs, cans of beer and bottles of wine all come in dozens. When we want to show an impressive number, we use dozens. “She has dozens of friends in Chicago.” “He has published dozens of articles on the subject.”

If you’re feeling really enthusiastic, you can join The Dozenal Society of America, which advocates a worldwide switch from base ten to base twelve. I am skeptical that base ten will be replaced any time soon., but who knows? Base twelve was in use back in ancient Mesopotamia, so it’s not just a new-fangled fad. Check out the song links at the end of this post, and you may be persuaded to join the ways of ancient arithmetic.

Now, to the real point of all this number talk.

The most common cause of unhappiness and frustration among creative personalities is resistance–the inner resistance that keeps a person doubting, worrying, fearing the vulnerability, and dismissing artistic endeavors as less than meaningful. It may clothe itself in procrastination, laziness, lack of focus, low confidence, or squandered talent. Whatever form it takes, but resistance lies behind anything inside a person that keeps him from doing the work.

Dedicate yourself to a dozen hours of creative work each week. It will change your life.

One musician plans her dozen hours a week this way. She practices for an hour every day. That’s seven. Then she spends five hours on emails, searching for gigs, keeping her website and press kit spiffy. Several months later she is performing more, growing her following, and pushing her music to a higher standard.

Another musician feels he is lacking in some foundation skills. He decides to practice ninety minutes a day. That’s ten and a half hours a week. Plus he puts a weekly lesson on top of that, and his dozen hours are set. He’s going to be a much better musician in just a few months.

Walter Mosley states that ninety minutes a day for a year is the minimum for finishing your first novel draft. Imagine a writer starting on this daunting adventure for the first time. Ninety-some minutes a day, a dozen hours a week. In about twelve months she’ll have six hundred hours poured into her draft, and that might make for a pretty solid piece of reading. Dabbling for a few hours every once in a while on a bored Saturday afternoon isn’t the way to good writing. Putting in the sweat and time is the only way she will get her best writing done.

If you have a job, kids, school activities, yard work, and your volleyball league, finding twelve hours might be tough. You’ll need to scale back on some things. The two-hour volleyball session could be replaced with an hour of running. Some of the school activities you volunteer for could go to other parents this year. Maybe TV isn’t always worth the time.

No one can guarantee that your work will find financial success or critical acclaim if you give more time to it. But it is guaranteed that a second-rate effort will never lead to excellence. Think of it this way: No one could promise that an hour a day in the gym will make you an Olympic athlete. But if you want to feel great and be in the best physical condition possible, that hour in the gym seems like an obvious plan. Work hard and you’re more likely to do very good things.

I’ll wrap up here with those promised songs of historical importance. I do have a soft spot for Mesopotamia from my days in ancient Near East studies. I spent the summer of 1992 translating the entire code of Hammurabi for an Akkadian independent study. So of course I have to point out some great music about the land between the rivers:

Feb 182013

Every time a musician says “no” to a gig, he is making his circle of opportunities a little smaller. When he’s feeling tired and wanting some chill time at home on the couch, someone else with more motor will take his spot and keep it.

Every time a pianist says “no” to practice, she’s saying that music is not as important to her as it is for some others. On the days she doesn’t practice, someone else is racing ahead to push the music a little further.

Every time a singer says “no” to fixing a mistake in practice, he’s telling himself the mistakes are OK. He’s made that mistake twenty times in the past, and he’s sung it correctly maybe once or twice. He may need to sing it right fifty or a hundred more times to patiently untrain the mistake.

Every time a novelist says “no” to writing, she is missing the opportunity to make her draft a little better. Other writers out there aren’t skipping as many days, and some of them will make it mainly on their drive and dedication.

Every time an artist says “no” to his most important project in order to dabble in something else, he is robbing the left pocket to fill the right one. Spending energy on a frivolous diversion with no intention to complete it diminishes the soul of his main pieces.

Every time a poet says “no” to working because she is worrying and doubting, she acts unkindly toward herself. Doubting herself means she doesn’t consider herself equal. Worrying denies that working very, very hard is what makes brilliant art. She does well to hold onto the truth: She is equal, and the best thing she can do for her creative heart is to work like she loves it and means it.

When you feel discouraged, lazy, distracted, or worried about your artistic work, bravely say “yes” to your creativity.

Oct 142012

May was two weeks into her summer job and one full year into her new life of Christian faith, and she felt emptied out by both. Her boss Joanna sat her down after lunch for a little lecture.

“I know you’re new here and you’re a fairly new believer, so I’m just trying to help you adjust. We don’t wear earrings here at the retreat center, but I keep seeing you with earrings on. I know people have different views on these things, but we have to keep one standard so everyone feels comfortable and in harmony. And this shirt you’re wearing today, the sleeves are too short. If you’re going to wear a short-sleeve shirt, the sleeve needs to cover most of your upper arm. Things like this will become second-nature after you’ve been here a while. Is that OK?”

“Yes, I got it,” May said, tired and angry. Earrings and sleeves don’t matter, she thought, so why all these stupid rules? But she said no more and got up to leave.

“Let me know if you have any questions. I’ll see you later.”

May was between her second and third years of college, where she had fallen in with one of the campus Christian fellowship groups. The camaraderie and fun she had with the Christian crowd helped her survive the doubts and loneliness of campus life. Sarah, one of her friends from the Christian crew, told her about the retreat center when she mentioned looking for a summer job.

“It’s run by some independent Christian people, kind of a Bible-based approach to a retreat center. And they run some summer-camp programs for kids. I was an apprentice there for a year before I came back to college last semester.”

“You liked it there?”

“They really push you to grow in your faith. It’s a place for spiritual growth and accountability. I think it would be good for you too.”

May was distracted as she resumed mopping the dining hall floor. She had read through the employee handbook that came in the mail a few days before she started the job. There was nothing about earrings or short sleeves. Is this what Sarah meant when she said the job would be good for her, some kind of army-style attitude adjustment?

She missed her classes at college. The other art students were very talented and a little wild. Well, she didn’t know how wild they really were. She got along great with the other students in class, but they seemed kind of careless and disorganized. They would often stumble into class looking like they had woken up just minutes before, mismatched socks, wrinkled clothes, hair a mess. She assumed some of them were hung over a lot of the time, though she had no proof of this.

There was a small circle of art student girls that were friendly to her. They invited her a few times for a midnight run to the donut shop, but she never accepted. She needed her sleep to make it to all her classes during the day and the fellowship meetings most evenings. Back in April a couple of those girls had invited her to someone’s house in the country for a party all weekend. They said there would be some fun people, and they’d be way out in the middle of the woods where no one could bother them. May felt kind of scared of that invitation. What kind of party did you have in the middle of nowhere? Maybe it was OK, but she couldn’t just ask what they would do at this party. That would look pretty dumb. She’d be trapped out there and couldn’t get away if she wanted to. Her Christian friends would notice that she wasn’t at her usual Sunday morning worship service, and she definitely couldn’t tell them she went to some wild woodsy party with a bunch of art student girls for the weekend.

The weird thing about those girls was, they did awesome work. One of them did such striking, almost disturbing sculptures. A couple months ago she did a stone owl that made May gasp when she first saw its menacing face. It really looked like it was turning its head to look at her. Another one was great with ceramics and pottery. May fell in love with a particular piece of hers, a stout green coffee mug standing on little legs doing a dance. May couldn’t understand how the students who seemed the most undisciplined, the up-all-night and party-in-the-woodds girls, how did they accomplish so much good work?

During her afternoon break she walked out to a peaceful, isolated spot among some trees behind the horse barn. She flopped down on the ground and leaned back against a wide, old tree to get her brain straightened out. Why did she let Joanna push her around? Why didn’t she argue back that there weren’t any rules about earrings and short sleeves?

At school she had tried to stay disciplined and accountable like her Christian friends always talked about. They would tell stories at Bible study about John Wesley and other old church people who were so spiritual and holy by living a methodical life in every way. Every minute was planned, every cent was spent intentionally, every word and thought guided by the desire to be holy and pleasing to God. But what the heck did that have to do with earrings? If she wanted people to boss her around all day, she’d join the stupid army.

She sighed loudly as a horse whinnied in the barn. A few weeks back her favorite art professor had told her that she should throw herself into her work, because she had untapped potential. Something she had read about Leonardo came to mind. Something about his mind being totally enslaved by a drawing or a tiny bit of a painting. He would just think and look all day without doing anything. Then he would finally make a few strokes with his pen or brush once it was absolutely perfect in his mind. That was probably what the professor was talking about, but how do you get there? Her mind was always bouncing around, thinking about where she needed to go later or about what happened yesterday. She was especially bad about thinking over conversations, wondering why someone said this or that to her. Leonardo probably never had problems like that.

She shook her head slowly and chuckled. Sarah, the Christian crew at school, and this Joanna person, it seemed like the one sin that a person should avoid was doing something impetuous or unpredictable. Why were people so afraid of … what? Whimsy, was that what you call it?

Joanna walked around the building one more time, but she couldn’t find May anywhere. No one had seen her for hours. “look,” she told a few of the people preparing dinner in the kitchen, “I gave her a little lecture about keeping her appearance modest. So maybe she got upset about that. Just let me know when she comes back so I can talk to her. I’ll be in my office”

As she was about to sit down at her desk, she saw something on her chair. It was a piece of paper folded up. It was a note from May.

“Thanks for the opportunity to work here. I apologize for leaving with no notice. I know it’s not the Christian thing to do. Please say goodbye to everyone in the kitchen for me. I’ve realized that I need to be more accountable to my imagination rather than to other people, so I have to go. Plus I want to see if some of my art-major friends want to hit the donut shop tonight. Good-bye, May.”

Aug 062011

You’ve got some talent? You’ve had some success?

According to hockey star Evgeni Malkin, that’s not enough.

Malkin (known as “Geno” by his teammates and fans) plays for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. He won the legendary Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009 and was awarded the Most Valuable Player trophy for that year’s playoff season. All this in his early twenties. The man is just getting started.

Malkin missed half of the 2010-2011 season with a devastating knee injury. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he has learned the value of training and improving. This article points out the benefits of the rigorous rehab process for Malkin, who needed to learn better ways to work out.

My brilliant wife Robin points out that legendary NHL player Gary Roberts also learned about conditioning and training only after a serious injury. Roberts was a fan favorite in Pittsburgh a few years ago for his ferocious and tenacious effort on the ice, so I have a hard time imagining him in the skinny-fat club. (OK, why are you all looking at me when I say the term “skinny’fat”?)

For musicians, artists, actors, and writers, there’s a great lesson here. Talent and success need to be combined with self-improvement. Getting better is a skill. You can relax on last year’s success, hoping that your audience will not notice that you’re treading water. Or you can relish last year’s success while working hard to do your best on your current creative work. Nothing takes the place of a serious work ethic.