Scatterbrained or Polymath?

I confess that I have many interests.

Because I’m driven to creativity, I have dabbled in everything from poetry to soapmaking, from comic book writing to car repair, from coding to carpentry. Because I’m curious, I seek out knowledge in history, literature, science, movies and beyond. Although I understand the value of staying with one project (and do), I can easily jump from one project to the next.

There is a saying in Estonia, “Nine trades, the tenth one — hunger.” You’re probably familiar with the 10,000 hour rule – put 10,000 quality hours into your field to become a master. It’s all about specialization. But certainly, there are individuals who have made quite a success of dabbling, individuals such as Elon Musk, Ben Franklin, Da Vinci, Newton, etc. (it’s a long list).

It’s one thing to obtain knowledge, it’s quite another to integrate it into something new and valuable. Being a successful polymath, I believe, takes a lot of energy and focus.

At any rate, I’ve finally come to embrace my polymath character and not fight it. It’s a part of who I am. Every day, I ponder ideas for bringing two disparate ideas together (often in my work). So, it has already served me well.

Does this resonate with you? How have you brought two fields together?

Writing and Community

For years, I’ve done all of my creative writing in isolation. None of my close friends have been writers. I’ve rarely bounced ideas off of other creative writers. I’ve certainly never collaborated with anyone. On a few occasions, I’ve found myself in a fiction writing critique group, but these have never lasted for some reason (and I haven’t always got the benefit out of them that I had expected to get). It has been like working in a vacuum.

But this year, I have made more of an effort to attend a poetry workshop group in the area. The poets in this group range in expertise, and there are certainly some good minds that challenge me and my writing. But I’ve also begun to reap the benefit of just being around fellow writers who are living many of the same challenges, struggles and joys as I do.

I’ve gained insight into the kinds of journals these poets are getting published in, how they are getting their books published, and which conferences they go to and the benefits they reap from those experiences. Although many of these elements seem small, they add up to a lot, in my estimation.

Whatever your passion might be, I’ve come to realize that being around others with your same passion is a healthy, important and possibly even a vital experience if you can get it.

Do You Have Something to Say?

A friend of mine recently asked me a seemingly small question. I was telling her about all of my creative writing projects (my children’s books, novels, short stories and poems), and she asked, in an intrigued tone, “So you feel like you have something to say?”

I could answer that question by rattling off all the philosophical topics I love to chatter about anytime I’m sitting across someone with nothing but coffee between us. And I could easily write a non-fiction book on just those things.

But I don’t think that’s really answering the question (for one thing, I’m not writing that non-fiction book). And I don’t think it’s such a small question after all. Certainly everyone has opinions, and at least a modicum of a unique perspective. Each of us, I believe, has something to share with our fellow humans. But do we feel that something is valuable enough to charge others’ money for it?

Part of the answer lies heavily with how we share our piece. Because that’s the art of it, isn’t it? Are we a good craftsman? Do we weave a compelling tale, or use poetic language?

But also, is our perspective well-informed? Well thought-out? Does it share a perspective sufficiently unique as to provide something new or powerful or educational?

I can only say I hope so. And I suppose that would be the honest answer, in one form or another, of most artists. We create because we are drawn to do it. I write stories and poems, because I’m feel compelled to do so and because I feel immense joy in the process.

But are the works that result things of value? It is the collision of art and audience that starts to answer that question. Even then, we are left with the question: Did the right art find the right audience?

Pens, Keyboards & Typewriters: How the Physicality of Creative Writing Affects the Psychological

When it comes to creative writing it matters how we write.

Most modern writers, it would seem, knock their drafts out tapping onto a computer keyboard, almost at the speed of thought. The improved keyboards of today’s machines make this experience nearly soundless. There is a swift conveyance of thought to screen that seems to be almost simultaneous for some. The convenience and speed of computer input makes it seem like a no-brainer. I do most of my writing this way. But writing hasn’t always been this way.

When I get stuck, I reach for my notebook. There is something about the process of putting ink on paper that changes the way we think. Some psychologists have suggested there might be a link between using two hands (a keyboard) and the one needed when writing longhand.

But that can’t be the whole story. There is a spatial element involved when writing by hand as well. I use pen writing most often when I’m working something out creatively, perhaps it’s a plot or a character arc. I often don’t just write straight across the page, line after line. I may write a note in the margin, and then I’ll draw a line from that connecting it to another thought on the other side of the page. There’s a kinetic energy to making work this way.

There have been times where I yearn to work on bigger and bigger pieces of paper. Someday, I plan to turn one whole wall of my study into a whiteboard so that I can map out my next labyrinthine novel plot. On second thought, perhaps I should turn the floor into one big rolling butcher sheet (paper is always better).

In Lee Rourke’s article in the Guardian on this subject, he quotes writer Alex Preston: “…watching the imprint of pen on page reminds us that writing is a craft. If everything is done on keyboards and fibre-optic wires, we may as well be writing shopping lists or investment reports.”1

Neil Gaiman has spoken publicly at length about his fondness for writing with a fountain pen (because, of course, Gaiman does). As he told the BBC, “I found myself enjoying writing more slowly and liked the way I had to think through sentences differently. I discovered I loved the fact that handwriting forces you to do a second draft, rather than just tidying up and deleting bits on a computer. I also discovered I enjoy the tactile buzz of the ritual involved in filling the pens with ink.”2

I also really like what Jon McGregor said (also from Lee Rourke’s article): “An idea or phrase can be grabbed and worked at while it’s fresh. Writing on the page stays on the page, with its scribbles and rewrites and long arrows suggesting a sentence or paragraph be moved, and can be looked over and reconsidered. Writing on the screen is far more ephemeral – a sentence deleted can’t be reconsidered.”1

Exactly! When we write creatively, the subconscious is telling us something. Even though those first words on the page may not be the best, they are important, critical even. Even if you’ve scratched through them, they still exist on paper, hinting at something else, some deeper force at work.

Other writers favor the pencil. And some still, the typewriter. Although I own a few manual typewriters (how they do warm the cockles of my heart), I’ve not really tried seriously writing on them. But poet and professor James Ragan once told me that he wrote all of his poems on the typewriter. There’s certainly a physicality involved with working on a manual typewriter that’s non-existent with a computer keyboard. You have to work at it. There is a physical exercise to getting something out of your head, with the body is engaged, that’s not really present in any other method of writing. Chiseling at a stone tablet, perhaps?

Different words and ideas are possible when you write in a college-ruled notebook versus writing on an unlined page, or on a napkin even. Are you writing with a gel ink pen or a ball point pen? All of these tangible factors affect how your hand moves, the energy of the stroke, the movement of the eye, the mood of the writer even.

I like to imagine the muscles in the hand directly connected by nerves to the brain, and at least some of those links are to the creative centers of the mind. By scratching the page, we jerk the strings of the imagination puppet, the strands that weave through our subconscious.

 

1 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/nov/03/creative-writing-better-pen-longhand

2 http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18071830

FreeWrite Combines Electronic Advantage With Old World, Distraction-Free Simplicity

I’ve been following this interesting product called the FreeWrite since they put it up on Kickstarter. In a nutshell, the FreeWrite is a distraction-free writing tool. Astrohaus, the company that makes the FreeWrite, ran a sweepstakes over the holidays. And I actually won the sweepstakes. No really. Out of over 12,000 entries, they selected my name. So needless to say, I was excited to try out this innovative piece of hardware.

They managed to ship the machine to me in under a week. I received it just after Christmas. The FreeWrite looks a bit like those old word processors that were on the market just before personal computers became popular. I had a Smith Corona version in college for a few years. But it’s so much more (and less).

This machine uses an eInk screen to show your content. It uses pleasing mechanical-style keys for input and has very little in the way of interface other than the basic keyboard layout. While it does connect to wireless Internet, it’s only purpose for doing so is to upload what you’re writing to a file folder in the cloud (such as DropBox). This tool is only for writing. No editing. You can’t even cursor backward in your text. You just write. You don’t check Facebook, or your stocks, or watch YouTube. You just write.

I’ve already knocked out half a short story on the FreeWrite, and I have to say, I enjoyed the experience. It’s a little strange not being able to go back in your text, so that will take a little getting used to. But I’ve developed a notation, as such when I think of something to add, I just put it in brackets. Later, when editing, I’ll know to grab those added bits and re-insert them elsewhere.

But seriously, I think the power of free-flowing writing with no real distractions, writing that is miraculously saved elsewhere the instant you type it – I don’t think that magic can be underestimated.

Wired calls it “a blank piece of e-paper.” And that’s exactly it. Such an elegant description, so apt, and there is great power in that simple idea.

I’ve read a few reviews of the FreeWrite online that don’t seem to get what it is. Look, if you have no need for a “distraction-free writing tool,” that’s fine. It’s a niche need. But just because I still have both legs doesn’t mean I’m going to start writing scathing reviews of every prosthetic leg product I can find.

In all fairness to struggling writers out there, the current price tag might be considered high. And I was oh-so-fortunate enough to get mine for free (so grateful, this is me being grateful). Clearly, the cost per machine is driven by the FreeWrite’s high-quality materials (aluminum body, eInk screen and Cherry MX keyboard), which I definitely appreciate. But that aside, I wholly recommend the FreeWrite, and I think there’s hope that if the FreeWrite catches on within the writer community – and why wouldn’t it – that price could come down some in the future.

On its website, Astrohaus claims the FreeWrite will double your hourly word count. I can’t help but believe it.

Before I Write the Novel: 16 Ways I Prepare

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As I began working on my current steampunk novel, I took notice of how much work I do in preparation before actually writing any prose. I find it makes the writing go much more smoothly. Primarily, I have fewer issues to mentally juggle in each scene as I’ve already done much of that thinking in the prep work. I can concentrate more on the emotion, the language and the details.

Although I believe every writer has a different process, I thought mine might provide some value to beginning writesr. So without further ado, here’s my list of preparation materials for my current novel:

  1. Plot Post-Its: After a great deal of discovery writing, I try to first nail the plot down by writing plot points on post-its and arranging them on a blank wall or door.
  2. Plot Outline: Using the post-its as a guide, I create the master outline. I spend a great deal of time injecting this outline with all the nuances of needed story (foreshadowing, exposition, inner conflicts, etc.)
  3. Plot High Points: I also find it useful to condense the outline down into a much shorter set of plot high points.
  4. Plot Chart: I create a spreadsheet from the plot high points and created columns for each major character so I can visualize how they were woven in and out of the plot.
  5. Character Bios: I explore primary characters, as far as their past, strengths, weaknesses and appearance.
  6. Research: For this novel, this consisted primarily of research into mechanical machines, various apparatus and specific scientific issues. I keep a Word document with all of these relevant particulars.
  7. Names: Names are critical to developing characters and places. I try to generate every relevant name in the story (knowing there will be more). I also try to group names by (fictitious) cultural influences.
  8. Themes: Here I explore the themes of the novel. This is used to modify the plot outline where necessary.
  9. Elements of Suspense: In this document, I analyze the plot for opportunities for suspense. I then modify the plot outline accordingly.
  10. Ideas Catalog: Like a small encyclopedia, I detail elements and concepts in the world I have created.
  11. Powers Ideas: In this novel, I created a new kind of magic and so felt I required documentation specifically around that.
  12. Diagram of Powers:  I also felt I needed a visual representation of how magic is used, so I made a rough sketch.
  13. Map of City: Naturally, I drew a map of the primary city.
  14. Map of World: I created another map of the world.
  15. Images (Environments):* I create image folders for various scenes and backdrops. These folders are filled with images I searched for on Google image search.
  16. Dream Cast:* I identify the celebrities I think might best represent my main characters, and save the most relevant images of them in a file folder. These celebrities do not have to be actors.

*Both the ideas for the image file folders and the dream cast were suggested to me by other successful writers.

How Not to Handle Returning from a Writing Hiatus

Writing After a HiatusUpon the times that I’ve returned to writing from a longer hiatus, I’ve exhibited the following, possibly unhealthy, pattern.

  1. Get story spark from divine events.* Hastily jot down notes on character and plot. Start writing.
  2. After two to four weeks, encounter the inevitable snarl. The writing is bogged down, going nowhere fast. Spend a session or two alternating between unsnarling, writing new scenes, destroying old ones, and beating head on desk.
  3. Step back and realize I failed while crafting original story outline, failed to think through motivations , sub-plots and things of this rudimentary ilk.
  4. Get disgusted with story. Start a new story, learning from my mistakes.
  5. Get it right. Pen masterpiece?

As experienced writers understand, momentum plays an enormous role in bringing about good writing. It keeps you on the edge of your game, thinking through all the elements of story a good writer needs to be thinking about. Remembering what you did in the last book, or last week, comparing it to what you just read, and so on. You’re in the zone of your craft, as it were.

If I take a break, then several of those perceptions and skills, some of the subtle, tend to shake loose and become misplaced. If I take a break, I need a practice round, something expendable. Or at least it becomes expendable in the process. I’ve never planned this, but looking back, I’ve recreated this pattern several times. You would think I would see it coming. No matter, it’s still something I have to do. The price I pay for taking a break. I should know better.

*And by divine, I mean mundane.