On Apathy, Authors and Too Much Driving

My favorite contemporary author, Adam Gopnik, doesn’t drive at all.  Ever.  He doesn’t even know how but it doesn’t matter because he lives in Manhattan.  Almost everything his family requires– schools, grocery stores, museums, parks, zoo, plenty of creative friends and a subway station, is within three blocks of his apartment.  My geographical home– Southern California is almost exactly opposite of this.  Only children or the homeless don’t drive here.

I rarely drive this much but yesterday I drove a total of five and a half  hours. Not all at once, but mostly spread out throughout the day.  I drove my children to summer camp, got them hot soup for lunch, got lost in a town I don’t know well– you get the picture. Cons of so much driving? My brain runs on reduced O2 levels (I can’t prove this), apathy creeps into my psyche like cheap perfume (this I know for sure) and I end the day physically exhausted even though I pretty much just sat.  Pros? My one-year-old logs in tons of beauty sleep and ends up smiley by dinner time. Also, I listen to a lot of audio-books and podcasts– which is totally awesome.

This morning, I listened to bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert talk about how she works.  Listening I felt a smidge envious because she has her routine down (and I don’t). I long for the certainty a proper routine brings a creative person.  Gilbert inspired me to work on my routine again.  I especially want to cut my driving by several hours!

Check out Gilbert’s talk at Big Think below:

Did Gilbert inspire you at all?

Let me know– and if she did, how?

Gibberish to Original with A Pen? It Works!

I few years ago I ran across playwright Julia Cameron’s advice to all artists in her classic book Finding Water.  She says,

In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it. I ask you to do this by an apparently pointless process I call the Morning Pages. Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning.

There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages– they are not high art. They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only.

The first time I tried this practice the result felt huge to me.  By the third day of whining and writing gibberish of all sorts I came across an idea about myself that shocked me.  Before I had time to think about or edit my writing, I wrote,

I used to be creative. At least I thought I was creative– for some reason,  just like some people think they are born lucky.  But I haven’t had a novel thought in years!  My creativity has wilted beyond recognition for lack of tending and I don’t know if I am creative anymore…

My hand wrote and I read the words after they were in ink on paper. I read them as if a good friend who knew me well had written them. The message  practically slapped me in the face and after a stunned long moment, woke me to action.   The very next day I took off for my favorite coffee shop and planned my creative re-birth in bullet points.  The following weeks I followed through on my plan.

Two weeks ago I restarted writing pages of long-hand dribble.  But this time I’m writing seven pages instead of just three.  The Pulitzer prize-winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan does this everyday to open her mind.  This time around I sheppard my stream-of-consciousness writing to stay near the topic of creativity, history and personal memories.  If I start to complain about my headache I redirect a little never stopping the flow of words.  So far it’s working well to open up my mind, as if my thoughts are dropping their usual shyness and dying to interact with the world.

I’ll keep you posted on my progress!

Living the Creative Life (Part I): Leonardo Da Vinci

How do you live the creative life? I’ve gleaned tips from some of my favorite Creators. For five days I’m writing about these insightful suggestions.

History’s creative heavies often possessed uncanny premonitions of the true weight of their work. Some of them even wrote accounts of their lives as road maps for future creators. Leonardo Da Vinci, for example,  must have at least hoped someone eventually would care how he lived.  In his famous notebooks, he tells how he mastered drawing the human form.  First, he hired nudes to pose for him so he could get everything true to form.  He drew hundreds of nudes all summer long.  Next, when the days turned cold he took all his summer drawings and picked the absolute best.  The rest he tossed into the fireplace.  Then, he memorized the proportions and exact shadings of his best drawings and replicated them over and over again until the next summer. When the next summer rolled around, he hired nudes again.  But this time they we’re out-of-shape,  over-weight people, rather than the fine specimens he used before.  He drew them as they were, but also added more muscles in the right places.  When he finished these,  he held them up against a mirror to trick his brain into thinking they were someone else’s work and his mistakes would pop out for him to analyze.  The next summer, he’d begin the entire cycle once more.

Da Vinci also left 16 tips on how to live.  His suggestions are clearly meant for artists but, I think you’ll agree, they are universal for anyone wanting the Good Life for Creativity’s sake.

Check them out below:

  1. Live life mostly in your studio. ( “Small rooms or dwellings discipline the mind, large ones distract it“)
  2. Have work at hand always.
  3. Don’t take holidays from work.
  4. Do the most difficult part of your work first. Persevere until you work through that hard part.
  5. Take time to imagine (when you wake and right before you fall asleep).
  6. Spend winter evenings re-studying what you learned the previous summer.
  7. When the next summer comes around, review.
  8. Take walks about town and study people.
  9. Use your natural competitiveness to improve your craft.
  10. Use a mirror to trick your brain into thinking you are looking at someone else’s work, and errors will instantly pop out before your eyes.
  11. Figure out what others find beautiful and blend those ideals into your work.
  12. Arrange your room to bring out the best in your work.
  13. Learn diligence first and not rapid execution.
  14. Make your art universal– of use or appeal to everyone.
  15. Always check your art against the real thing.
  16. Surpass your teachers.

My favorites are #3, #4, #8 and $12.  Did you find any you think worth trying out? Let me know.  Leave a comment. I would love to hear from you!

Lifting to Disturb

At the bottom of every syllabus for the undergraduate History courses I teach is the small print. The gist of it:

Plagiarism will get you booted out of college in disgrace scraping you off the bottom of an intellectual world that will never-more be yours.  Do not copy, ever.

I include the small print, because it is University policy. I must abide.  But,  Highly Creative people must copy from others.  It is the way humans learn almost anything.  At least 85% of what I tell my students from up front I’ve collected, in tiny morsels, from the work of others.  I’m like a baby bird in the nest, mouth open, waiting for a juicy bit of truth from another Historian out there, who brings it to me in book form.

I tell my students  how  long ago, Carlos Bulosan got punched in California blueberry fields for being Filipino. My students digest this.  They keep the good parts, whatever raises their Oxytocin levels, for good or ill, and forget the rest.  They eat ideas to spit them out someplace, some time, and the ideas see the light of day once more, somewhere, sometime.

Still, digestion is key.  Cutting and pasting from WikiPedia just won’t do.  Something must be added to the pile of words that make up principles and facts.

Highly creative people, have always copied.  But, it’s lifting, without disturbing, that is wrong.  It’s like passing off someone else’s child as your own.  Your own child took work and time and may end up looking a lot like your sister, but he’s yours.  You know this, because you bled through labor and saw his perfect head come through your Self.

The Self of Creativity is imagination. The ideas of others have to pass through your imagination.  Then they are yours to keep and watch grow or give away at will.

Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said,

A poet ought not to pick nature’s pocket. Let him borrow, and so borrow as to repay by the very act of borrowing. Examine nature accurately, but write from recollection, and trust more to the imagination than the memory.

So, my students will read the small print.  And, I will tell them to do as Benjamin Franklin did.  Read.  Digest.  Imagine a bit, too. Then write what you think you read and compare with the original.  At least you’ll learn to write better.  That growth, no matter how small, eclipses the abhorrent laziness clean-cut plagiarism implies.

Defining Creativity, Part 4: Fighting Entropy in the Reinassance

Every day, for a week,  I’m writing about the definitions of Creativity thinkers have offered throughout history and why each one cannot be the final definition. Yesterday I wrote about Inspired Poets and Creating Dieties.

The path of Human Creativity, paved with sweat, sore muscles and lots of thinking, shone first for artists and writers of the Renaissance. Inspiration came from Heaven, as a gift to mimic divine perfection, but with enough strings attached to make it a burden, an imperative to act. The artist Michelangelo and polymath Leonardo Da Vinci embodied the best of the Renaissance and wrote about the Creative process.

In the Renaissance, the artist, attempted  to reveal God, for himself and others. Michelangelo said,

Every beauty which is seen here by persons of perception resembles more than anything else that celestial source from which we all are come.

The revelation of God’s Creation through art began with the human form itself. Again, Michelangelo:

What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?

So great a task could not be mere rule-following or craft, but firmly founded on intellect. Michelangelo:

He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.

Human intellect and Heavenly inspiration set the boundaries for decades of exhausting work.  Leonardo Da Vinci said,

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.


There is no greater harm than that of time wasted.

If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.

Such work, bathed in meaning and purpose quieted the soul on good days.  Da Vinci said,

As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.

Or, opened the door to the cellars of self-doubt.  Again, Da Vinci:

I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.

Highly Creatives of the Renaissance fought entropy with heart and soul. Michelangelo:

The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.

Many believe – and I believe – that I have been designated for this work by God. In spite of my old age, I do not want to give it up; I work out of love for God and I put all my hope in Him.

Today we carry many of these beliefs to define Creativity.  But inspiration, intellect and a lifetime commitment to hard work do not guarantee Creation, nor do they tell the entire story of what Creativity is.