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Thoughts on Writing

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What is a writer?

Well, the simple answer is, a writer is someone who writes. Easy enough to explain something by citing its definition. Bricklayers lay brick, dancers dance, musicians make music, and writers write. Simple.

But why do writers write?

The answer to that question is a bit more complex. It is, as they say, a whole other ball o’ wax. The reasons people choose to write are as varied as the writers themselves. I could list all the reasons for writing by it would take up more time that I’m prepared to spend on this post. For those interested in exploring the topic, l suggest you pick up a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With the Dead, A Writer on Writing. She offers an extensive, although by no means comprehensive, list of reasons why writers write; some of them surprising, others not so much. One reason that appears elsewhere in Ms. Atwood’s book, although not among the listed reasons for writing, is that it’s a comparatively easy thing to do. There are no prerequisites; no intellectual or educational background is required beyond a certain facility with one’s native language. That, and the determination to see the process through from beginning to end. After all, it is, as Neil Gaiman is supposed to have said, simply a matter of putting one word after another on the page until you’ve finished saying whatever it is you want to say. Simple, right? Not really.

There’s a small addendum to Mr. Gaiman’s description that’s worth noting if one aspires to be a published writer. (Not all of us aspire to that lofty goal, but I’ll get to that in a bit). The addendum is, that along with putting one word after another on the page, a should be able to put the right word in the right order after another on the page. Makes this ‘writing thing’ a bit trickier, don’t you think?

Ernest Hemingway once described the act of writing as, “You just sit down and open a vein.” Ironic, considering Hemingway did a lot of his writing standing up. I’ll confess that Hemingway’s description is a bit more strenuous the Mr. Gaiman’s, and anyway most writers – not all, but the majority – manage to confine their bloodletting to the page. Suffice it to say the actual process of writing lies somewhere between the two extremes. I, myself, picked writing because it was one of the few things I was suited to that didn’t require an inordinate amount of time trying to dislodge the dirt from under my fingernails.

So, what’s it like, being a writer?

For the most part writers live pretty much to way everyone else does. Most of us have ‘day jobs’. We get up, get the kids ready for school, go to work, attend PTA meetings, grocery shop, pick the kids up after school, get the car washed, the tires rotated, go to the barber or the hairdresser, maybe go on vacation when we can afford it. Pretty much the same thing everyone else does, except when all the other stuff is done, we write; usually late at night or early in the morning, and sometimes on the weekends if there are no soccer, baseball or football games, or piano or ballet recitals to attend. We’re just like everyone else. We’re kind of like witches in that respect; you can’t tell just by looking whether we are one or not.

Writers also tend to be avid readers, and we read across a wide variety of subjects and genres. I’ll give you an example. My own small library contains books on history, biography, memoirs, religion, business, art, writing, cooking, science and politics. I have thrillers, literary fiction, classics, philosophy, occultism, humor. books on photography and crafts, wine and winemaking, books and book collecting. And these, in one way or another, inform my own writing, as well as the way I tend to see the world around me. By reading how others viewed their world, I gain insights into my own world, and how it came to be the way it is. It’s also a handy how-to for using words, a turn-of-phrase that, with practice, helps me improve my writing.

Writers have always experienced a peculiar, Janus-like relationship with the non-writing public. Being among the ‘creatives’ in society, we are encouraged, even celebrated, in our ability to provide entertainment for the masses; to allow them to slip the bonds of their work-a-day lives and enter realms where good and evil battle endlessly for supremacy, and where good doesn’t always prevail, at least not until the next installment rolls off the presses. Then the god smiles on the writer, and the critics praise his efforts and lament the dearth of creativity in society, and presses roll out another spate of how-to books exclaiming, “You, too, can be (or become) more creative!”

Writers – and this applies especially to journalists, whether they write books or newspaper and magazine articles – have also always had the responsibility to “speak Truth to Power”, to expose, whenever possible, the misdeeds of governments and corporations, and provide the public the information necessary to combat the abuse of power. Then the god frowns on the writer, and governments and corporations berate him or her for the “misleading information”, “the lies”, “libels”, “unfounded accusations” and “unsubstantiated rumors”. These centers of power and influence have always viewed the writer as suspect, unreliable, and possibly subversive. Writers who continually joust with those in power have often been described in stereotypical terms; alcoholic, drug-addicted and mentally unbalanced, all to discredit those who question authority; and not only those who currently challenge authority, but those who would do so in the future.

That’s what it means to be a writer. It’s just like any other job or avocation. You have your good days and your bad. Like my mother used to say, “You pay your money, and you take your chance.”

In the end, I guess, it really doesn’t matter what type of writer you are (or become); whether you labor in the public eye like Stephen King, John LeCarré, or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, or you labor in secret like Winston Smith, the reluctant hero of George Orwell’s 1984, or even if you write a single word. It doesn’t matter what you do, what matters is that you do it. But if you’re human, and I’m betting you are, sooner or later you’ll give in to cacoethia scribendi, “the itch to scribble”. Just be warned, if you scratch that itch once, you won’t be able to stop.

 

 


 

Revisiting an old post. . .(kinda, sorta)

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Find your PassionFive – nearly six – years ago I wrote a post entitled, “You Have To Know the “Rules” . . .(before you can break or bend them)”. It was a not-all-that-subtle attempt to explain how to approach the interview process; how to dress appropriately combined with an attempt to advise job-seekers on the (then touchy) subject of tattoos. The job market had tanked and I felt there was a need for information about finding work, and the various problems that arise during the job search. There are a lot of them, and not all of them have to do with “pounding the pavement”, submitting resumés, etc. . . There was nothing new in the post, nothing that shouldn’t have been “common knowledge” or “common sense”. Still, the article seemed a “good fit” so I posted it, and then promptly forgot about it and moved on to different topics. Then a funny thing happened.

Of all the posts I’ve written on this blog (and I’m the first to admit there haven’t been all that many), “You Have To Know the “Rules” . . .” is the one post most often referenced by people stopping by this blog.  I began to wonder why. I’ve written on a variety of topics, not all of which have to do with job-hunting.  Many have been (at least to me) humorous or autobiographical; some have been straight fiction.  So why did this one post elicit so much popularity after so many years? Are there still people “out there” who need help job-hunting, or dealing with the interview process? Or was it something else?

Were people looking for some “magic bullet” that would allow them to find the perfect job, the most satisfying career, the most blissful life? Was the title of the post misleading? Were my readers referencing the post in hopes of finding some “inside track” that would magically supply them with the key to finding happiness? Is that why people were reading “You Have To Know The “Rules”. . . ? God, I hope not!

Because the simple truth of the matter is, there aren’t any. There are no one-size-fits-all “rules” for anything. In fact, the only “rules” are the ones you make for yourself. Everything else is a “guideline”, a “suggestion”. Sure corporations large and small have “rules” for how the work gets done, how the employees should behave, etc. . .(but they’re the corporation’s rules, not yours) and you can accept them or reject them, along with the job. That’s entirely up to you.

What it comes down to, in the final analysis is this: “Rules”, whether they’re set up by your parents, teachers, pastors, employers or friends are really their expectations of how you should behave, or what you should learn, or what you should believe, or what you should do to try to fit in and nothing more. It’s up to you to decide those things, not someone else.

You have your own ideas of what constitutes a good life, a happy life. You have your own dreams and plans and hopes for the future. It’s up to you – and you alone – to make those plans and dreams and hopes reality. You’ll never get there if you spend your time (and it’s a very limited amount of time) trying to live up to someone (or everyone) else’s expectations, or “rules”. (Image courtesy of gapingvoid,com)

 

 

 

 

Written by stevewthomas

May 9, 2016 at 11:55 am

The Republican field is about to get a lot smaller. . .

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One of the problems with not being a “committed” writer (although many have suggested I should be — committed) is that I have a problem trying to decide how I want to say what it is I have to say.  This, more often than not, leads to long periods of apparent inactivity, as anyone who has taken the time to follow this blog can attest. It also means I’m often “beaten to the punch” when it comes to subject matter. Take, for example, this post.

I’ve seen in the media – both print and televised – reports that members of the Republican establishment opposed to the Trump candidacy are actively searching for someone other than Marco Rubio to try and stop, or at least delay, the freight train that is the Trump campaign from pulling into “Nomination Station” before his coronation — excuse me, I meant to say the convention.  It seems the Republican establishment has soured on Sen, Rubio, owing to his less- than-stellar showing in all the primaries and caucuses thus far.  Sen. Rubio is placing all his eggs in his home state of Florida’s winner-take-all basket; a strategy many of the Republican elite don’t see as viable.  The result of their second-guessing on their strategy is that they have to find someone else to rally around in hopes of, if not stopping, at least slowing the Trump juggernaut and forcing a “brokered” convention, where they can, or at least hope to, deny him the nomination. To that end they may have found themselves in the distasteful position of picking the one candidate they see as being able to, if not defeat Trump outright, bring him to the convention sans nomination.

It has been reported former presidential candidate Jeb Bush is scheduled to meet with all the remaining Republican candidates except Trump. There are two meetings set up before the Florida primary; one with Sen. Rubio and a second meeting with Sen. Cruz and John Kasich. The agendas of the upcoming meetings have not been made public, but it’s a fair bet to say they do not bode well for Sen. Rubio. That could be (and probably is) the reason Jeb Bush was tasked with breaking the bad news to the senator, rather than some other high-ranking Republican. Bush is a former governor of Florida and for a time acted as a mentor (of sorts) to the young first-term senator. It’s likely Jeb’s presence will take the sting out of the news he has to deliver; that the GOP “kingmakers” don’t think Rubio can win in his home state, and, in the unlikely event of his doing so, that he would be unable to sustain whatever momentum such a victory would provide.  I’m only “spit-balling” here (I have no insider information or leak sources to draw on) but during the one-on-one with Rubio, Jeb could – could – suggest his one-time protégé step aside before the primary and forego the embarrassment of losing what the senator has described on numerous occasions as a “sure win”. The alternative would be to face the humiliation of losing his home state, and all the bad press that would result, drop out of the race and throw whatever fast diminishing support he could muster behind the party’s preferred candidate.

Jeb, in all likelihood, has the same message for Gov. Kasich who is pinning his meager hopes on carrying his home state of Ohio (which primary is held on the same day as Florida’s), without the courtesy of a private delivery.  That would leave only one viable alternative to Trump (or Drumpf, if you’re a fan of John Oliver) – Senator Ted Cruz.  The choice makes no sense to me. Why would the GOP pick a candidate they despise (and the GOP despises nobody as much as they despise Ted Cruz)? The Republican party is in a panic over the possibility of a “Drumpf” (you guessed it, I’m an Oliver fan!) nomination. It’s palpable and in their desperation, they’ve turned to the one man capable of completing the destruction of the GOP.

After next Tuesday, the race for the GOP nomination gets really scary. I’ll have more in the coming days. Until then. . .

 

 

 

The Theory of Creativity & The Creative Process (revised)

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Sometimes I think I must be the absolute least creative person on the planet. I mean if you were to devise a ‘creativity scale’ from 1 to 10, where 1 was the absolute least creative (meaning at some point during the day, I get out of bed) and 10 was the absolute most creative (meaning I came up with a cure for cancer and a solution to the global warming crisis and ended up saving the planet and everyone on it) I would most likely be a solid 2. I do manage to get out of bed (most days). The truth is I spend the greater part of my day finding new and interesting ways not to be creative.

For example, today, after getting out of bed, I dressed, consumed coffee (something I do several times a day) and went to my spare room/library/office. Once seated at my workstation, I casually sipped coffee and stared at a blank sheet of paper for several minutes before deciding now would be an opportune time to put my research files in some sort of order. It was during this rearranging process I came upon a folder entitled, CREATIVITY.

This folder was, as you might expect, filled with pages (actual pages, not computer images) of material on creativity. I have no idea why I bother to print, collate and staple all these pages; probably for no other reason than it provides an excellent opportunity to not actually write anything while creating the illusion of doing something useful. In any case, since I had the folder open on the floor, I decided to peruse its contents, and I came across two interesting and well-known bits of information.

The first was Graham Wallas’ 5 stage model of the creative process. You’re probably familiar with these 5 stages: preparation, incubation, intimation, illumination and verificationThey’re pretty much universally accepted as being representative of the creative process. That being said, I very much doubt any creative person spends any time ticking off these stages as they go about creating whatever it is they create. I know I don’t.

The other piece of notable information I gleaned from the folder’s contents was the “four-C” model of creativity. This model was developed by Kaufman and Beghetto (I have no idea who these guys are — probably psychologists) as a means of categorizing the various types of creativity. They are ‘mini-c’, ‘little-c’, ‘Pro-C’ and ‘Big-C’. I’m not going to detail which type of creativity fits which category; suffice it to say most of us fit into the ‘little-c’ category, some of us fit into ‘Pro-C’ and a few (very few) fit into the ‘Big-C’ category. I find these categories useful only to researchers. I can’t imagine anyone inclined to be creative sitting down to his or her desk and saying to themselves, “Today, I think I’ll do some ‘little-c’ work. Tomorrow maybe I’ll do some ‘Pro-C’, but for today, I think I’ll stick with ‘little-c’.”

Sitting there, with all those pages spread out in front of me on the floor, I got to thinking; there had to be a simpler way to describe creativity and the creative process. I mean, all these stages and categories were confusing and intimidating.

Given that I had only two options open to fill the remainder of my day; either get off the floor and face the blank page on my desk or devote more time to my files and, coincidentally, to the problem I had unwittingly presented to myself. I chose the latter (anything but a blank page!) and set about using my admittedly limited editorial skills to winnowing stages and categories. I started with the basic premise that everyone, regardless of who they were or what they did, was creative. You can’t help it, it’s in the genes.

Starting with this basic premise, I determined there were two types of creative individuals; those who were engaged in creative pursuits, and related fields, as a means of earning a living, and those who weren’t involved in creative pursuits but were, nonetheless, creative. The first group I labelled, ‘overt creative‘, the second, ‘covert creative‘. The first group, the ‘overt creative’ group, labor in fields where their creativity and the results of their creative endeavors were on public display (artists of all stripes, lawyers, doctors, architects, etc.). The second group, the ‘covert creative’ group, labor in fields which require no special creative talents but who are, nevertheless, creative in their private lives or in the pursuit of personal interests (hobbies, social groups, etc.). So far, so good. I managed to compress four categories of creativity into two categories.

As far as the creative process was concerned, this proved a bit more difficult. How do you pare down 5 stages of creativity to a more manageable, less obtuse formula? It took a while but after some intense thought (and several more cups of coffee), I managed to whittle the five down to what I believe are the ‘bare bones’ of creativity.

These ‘bare bones’ are three in number. Intent. Expression. Outcome. In my revised model, these are the 3 basic stages of the creative process. In order to give an example of this model ‘in action’ so to speak, I’ll use myself as an example.

As a writer, my intent is to write a post for this blog. The actual writing of the post (with all the accompanying research — names, numbers, etc.) forms the expression of my intent. The outcome of my expression of intent is (or will be) the finished post.

So, there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. That’s my theory of the creativity and the creative process, ‘in a nutshell’. Well, not exactly a nutshell; more like five handwritten pages, or something just shy of 1,000 words. But you get the idea.

Until next time. . .

Double Vision . . .

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I haven’t done any of the exercises for the Photo 101 course; didn’t do many of the Blogging 101 exercises for that matter. I’m happy with my blog page(s) and I really  don’t want to distract viewers from the words with a lot of fancy “jimcracks”.

Anyway, I’m having the devil’s own time trying to come up with an interesting subject for a new post so . . .I thought I’d do one of the assignments for the Photo 101 course . . .and it may as well be the last one, so here goes . . .DSCN0852DSCN0847

I thought these two were appropriate to the theme of this assignment. Whaddya think?

 

Written by stevewthomas

July 2, 2015 at 4:45 am

Here’s To The Crazy Ones . . .

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“There was never a great genius without a touch of madness”

–Ben Jonson

According to the results of  a study published in the journal, Nature Neuroscience on Monday, Ben Jonson actually was correct.  According to the study, scientists in Iceland (of all places) report that “genetic factors that raise the risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are found more often in people in creative professions.  Painters, musicians, writers and dancers were, on average, 25% more likely to carry the gene variant than professions . . .judged to be less creative, i.e. farmers, manual laborers and salespeople.” (Wonder why they didn’t include accountants?)

Kari Stefansson, founder and CEO of deCODE, a genetics company based in Reykjavik, said the findings point to a common biology of some mental disorders and creativity.  He told the GUARDIAN, “To be creative, you have to think differently. And when we are different, we have a tendency to be labelled strange, crazy and even insane.” Stefansson’s comment seems (to me at least) to contradict the validity of the study’s findings, saying creative people are viewed as mentally ill more as a result of operating outside of established societal or cultural norms than because of any biological (or genetic) abnormality. And I’m not the only one who’s skeptical of the study’s findings.

Albert Rothenberg, professor of psychiatry at HARVARD UNIVERSITY, is not convinced. “It’s the romantic notion of the 19th century, that the artist is the struggler, aberrant from society, and wrestling with inner demons,” he said. In 2014, Rothenberg published, “Flight of Wonder; an investigation of scientific creativity”. He interviewed 45 science Nobel laureates and found no evidence of mental illness in any of them. He suspects such studies pick up on a different phenomenon.

“The problem is that the criteria for being creative is never anything very creative,” Rothenberg said. “Belonging to an artistic society, or working in art or literature (two of the criteria used in the Iceland study, as well as the results of a questionnaire in which subjects self-identified as “creative”; and who doesn’t want to be considered “creative”, in this day and age?) does not prove a person is creative. But the fact is that many people with mental illness do try to work in jobs that have to do with art and literature, not because they are good at it, but because they’re attracted to it. And that can skew the data.”

It’s easy to see the results of this study are going to be debated, hashed and re-hashed for some time to come. The discussion’s been ongoing for millenia, with no sign of letting up. So, take heart all my fellow “creatives”, especially all you writers out there, staring at your computer screens, thinking, “I must be crazy to think I could do this.” You’re not, then again . . .

The Pump

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I remember Mom had gathered us all into the family car. We were going for a drive; I didn’t know where or why. I do recall it had something to do with my father, so it was probably during the time he was in the hospital, after the stroke. We drove — Mom did, anyway — into the country for what seemed a long time until we came to a farmhouse; a ramshackle affair of unpainted and weathered grey wood.

An old man answered Mom’s knock. I say, ‘old man’ but I’m not entirely sure he was. I was very young at the time so every adult qualified as ‘old’. The old man — I think his name was Ralph — was related to my father in some way, a cousin or uncle or something. He invited us in and we stepped through the doorway into the house, uncertain as to what we’d find.

The interior of the house was cluttered and smelled of wood smoke and cooking. Ralph directed Mom to a chair while my brothers and I stood and waited, unsure if we were to sit or stand  After a few moments, we were directed to the back of the house and out into the yard. I say, ‘the yard’, but it was more — much more — than that; several acres more.  It had once been a ‘working farm’, but no more. All that remained was the land; a few trees scattered here and there, and some ways off, a barn that looked to be in worse shape than the house.

I was tempted to explore the barn but it was too far from the house and, anyway, Ralph hadn’t mentioned it. I redirected my attention to other, closer places to explore. It was then I noticed, a few yards from the house, what appeared to be a rusted pipe sticking out of the ground. I was intrigued

The pipe turned out to be a pump and I knew, if there was a pump, then somewhere beneath my feet, it was connected to a well. I had read about pumps and wells in some of the books at home; ;the family visits the farm’ kind of books. I’d never seen one in ‘real life’ and never had occasion to use one. If I wanted a drink of water at home, I went into the kitchen, turned the tap and Bingo! Water. I couldn’t imagine coming all the way out to the middle of the yard for a drink of water.

I wondered if the pump still worked, if there was still water in the huge lake I imagined lay somewhere beneath my feet. Tentatively, I reached out and touched the pump handle. It was warm to the touch.

For some reason — I never really understood why — I wanted to see if I could pull water up from the well.  I pushed down on the pump handle, It didn’t move. A layer of rust had frozen the handle in place. But I was determined to draw water from the well. I gathered all my weight — all 60 or 70 pounds of it — and hurled it onto the pump handle. My effort was rewarded by an ear-splitting scream as the mechanism broke free of the rust and pump handle descended. The mechanism wasn’t spring-loaded. I had to pull the handle up. Free of the rust, the handle mechanism moved more easily. I raised the handle to about shoulder level and pushed down. The handle moved easily in my hand now but there was no water. I continued pushing the handle down, pulling it up; determined to bring water, if there was any, up from the well.

“Stephen!” Mom called.

I stopped pumping, startled by the sound of Mom’s voice.

“What are you doing?” She asked. Her tone of voice told me whatever it was, I definitely shouldn’t be doing it

“It’s all right, Mary,” Ralph said as he sauntered up behind Mom, hands shoved into the pockets of his overalls, to stand next to me. “The boy can’t hurt that old pump.” He stood there, looking down at me with a condescending half-smile on his face; the kind of look you give someone you’re watching trying to perform an unfamiliar task you know they should be able to perform. “We haven’t used that pump in, oh, must be going on five years now,” he said. Ralph turned to look out at the land beyond the pump. “Been at least that long since we sold off the last of the milk cows,” he added with a note of sadness in his voice, then turned back to me. “Gonna take a lot of pumping to bring the water up,” he said, cocking an eyebrow at me by way of challenge

I looked up at Ralph, then turned to Mom The look on my face must have been enough to waylay any argument. She glanced at Ralph, then gave me her ‘I surrender” smile, knowing there was no point in arguing, and shrugged.

Encouraged, I attacked the pump handle with renewed energy. It took a while — maybe ten minutes of steady pumping — with Mom and Ralph looking on, but finally water spewed from the pump spigot. I abandoned the pump handle and thrust my hands into the flow. The water was cold and clear. I splashed water onto my face and smiled up at Ralph. “It’s good!” I said.

“‘Course, it’s good,” Ralph replied, “Mother Nature don’t use no chemicals.” There was pride in his voice as he watched me slurp water from my cupped hands.

Mom stepped closer and put an arm around my shoulders. “Well, I guess it’s time we headed back.” she said, her tone saying there was no more reason to stay. The three of us — Mom, me and Ralph — turned from the pump and started toward the house, Mom calling my brothers as we went.

“Boy would’ve made a helluva farmer,” Ralph said to no one in particular.

Back at the car well piled into the back seat and, after Mom and Ralph shared a few parting words, we left for home. I turned to look out the rear window and saw Ralph wave once from the yard, then turn and walk back to the house, hands shoved in the pockets of his overalls.

I went back some years later, along a new stretch of four-lane, to where Ralph’s farmhouse once stood. It’s gone now, of course, like all the small, family farms; the land sold off to developers for highway rights-of-way, housing developments and shopping malls. It’s a shame, really, but I guess that’s progress. Still, I would’ve liked to try that pump one last time.

Written by stevewthomas

May 4, 2015 at 7:26 am

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