Monday, October 27, 2014

Who does your art matter to?

The Man in the Arena

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly...
-Theodore Roosevelt, from Brenẽ Brown's Daring Greatly

Today is a day of new beginnings. New beginnings for this blog, and new beginnings for my own art. Its not because the video below inspired me. Its not because I had some sort of grand epiphany. Its not because I haven't been working hard. It is because I am done listening to my mother's voice in my head.

Years and years ago I used to draw. I knew tons of people who thought my art was pretty good, and I wanted to pursue my art and make it into something better than what it was. So I shared my art with people close to me, particularly my mother. And the funny thing is, at first she loved it. A piece of my art still sits on a shelf at her home. However years later, I drew what at the time was my greatest "masterpiece" and I gave that to her. Many of the characters I write about today were etched into that art, and it meant everything to me.

But she was a different person at this time, bad things had happened to her that had changed her from my strongest supporter to my worst critic. One day in a rage about something I did as a teenager she tore it off the wall and tore it –piece by piece– in front of me. It is one of the few times I can remember crying in my life. It was that day that I stopped drawing. And that was the day that a voice was born in my head that cuts down all that I create.

Brenẽ Brown, speaker in The Power of Vulnerability
Now I've put up a good fight against that voice for several years now. I've tried to make it small, to only listen to the pertinent bits of what it says. I've invited it to my arena and given it a seat to watch as it deals more horrific blows to my art than my own critique process. And though over the years I've gotten better in many respects as how to deal with it, I never understood the problem was the fact that I invited someone to my arena who should never have been there. If I am not entirely clear in the video below (that I recommend you watch) Brenẽ Brown speaks specifically about those you should invite to be in your arena.

As I watched this video I realized I need to make some changes in my life. I have been studying various things of late in order to come to a better place of peace within myself, but I feel turmoil each time I sit down to write. And I hadn't realized the source of that turmoil until today. Thus I share with you some of my resolutions for myself in hopes it may help you to become a better artist.

Resolution One: I am only taking critique and criticism from those who are in the arena with me. If you are going to get your ass kicked, its best to know those doing the ass kicking and what their motives are. Why pay attention to the folks who aren't engaged in the work and therefore have no idea how difficult it is or where you could be giving more. If you create YouTube videos you could read all the comments from people insulting you or you could pay attention to those who are focused on your success and how they would love to help you there. One of those is an ass kicking without meaning, the other makes you stronger.

Resolution Two: The muse only visits the consistent. To this end I plan on stepping into the arena on a regular basis. You don't become a better fighter (or artist) in the arena by watching others fight, or by just talking about the techniques of others. You become a better artist by creating work. A body of work will be both the best of what you can create and the worst, but when you display that before others it will only be the best you are capable at the time. Only those willing to fail are able to build the skills that will offer them a chance at success.

Resolution Three: I am done spending time in the arena hurling insults. It's time to be accountable for what I say and do. We can't expect to not get our own asses kicked in the arena if we are spending our time hurting others in the arena. I will help others I see to make their art better, to find the positive about what they have created and encourage them. Despite even the worst work, there is always something they are doing right. Celebrating that while showing them how to create better work, is only a step on the road to doing it well yourself.

Though these things are easier said than done, I have faith that I can enact positive change in my life and in the lives of those around me. To answer the question that opens this blog, my art matters to me. And I need to act like it instead of acting like it matters to all the people who would see me remain small and unworthy of their notice. I hope you do the same with your own art.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Focused Practice for Writers #1

Practice is the primary tool to developing our art into something better. Some say it takes ten thousand hours, others say a million words, but all of it means the same thing: In order for us to get better we have to invest time. In the interest of investing our time as writers better I share a technique I learned from Howard Tayler, author of Schlock Mercenary and member of the Writing Excuses Podcast, at LDS Storymakers 2013. It is called Focused Practice.

Focused Practice is when you work on a skillset in any domain and you identify the things that you are not good at, and instead of building shortcuts around them you focus your practice efforts there. For our purposes the domain is writing and storytelling. And I know what you are saying, "I'm no good at complex plots," or "I don't want to tell that kind of story." And all that may be true, but the idea is to seize control over these skills.
Listen to Howard talk about
Focused Practice here.

Tayler boils down a concept Carol Dweck, a Stafford professor, teaches: "If you believe a thing is within your control you're more likely to exercise control over it."

When I do focused practice, I spend fifteen minutes typing as quickly as I can with the focus of developing one skill. This works better than trying to develop all my writing skills at the same time.  As a writer who is looking to serve other writers, I wanted to share three writing prompts that have helped me in my own focused practice:

I rewrote a chapter from
this "Words of Radiance."
1. Rewrite the work of an author you want to imitate word for word.
Tayler comments that in order to utilize focused practice best we need to have a mentor. Unfortunately sometimes we don't have a critique group or mentor that fills that role for us. In my experience we don't always have mentors or critique groups to help us. This exercise can help us that problem. Taking a writer you admire and writing out their prose word for word can be very helpful. You'll have to ask yourself why they made the choices they for verbs, nouns, and perhaps most importantly when they use adjectives and adverbs. Upon finishing this exercise compare some of your writing to theirs. Without the luxury of a real life mentor you now will be able to recognize some of the places that you want to develop your skills.

2. "Write the other."
Nikki Giovanni, a famous poet who teaches at Virginia Tech, states, "Writers don't write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit they don't. I want to be clear on this. If you wrote from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writer's write from empathy." Take a real life situation that you can empathize (or even better one you can't) with and write from the perspective on one of the people involved. This will help you to get outside yourself and see world differently. There is not one morality in a good story, there should be at least two, and in more complex stories you'll need even more.

3. Use a picture for inspiration
If anyone looks at my Scrivener set up, they will find thousands of inspirational pictures like the one to the left. The novel I am currently working on has been inspired by several pictures like this. So the focused practice to engage in here is to create a story based off of this picture. It doesn't have to be the best story in the world, you are just looking to allow your imagination to move in different directions. Have fun with this prompt.

For the next month these will be the types of practice I will be focusing on. Next month I'll post another three.

Addendum for those writing with A Round of Words in Eighty Days: As for my goals, though I've been writing a lot I am still less than halfway done with the short story I am working on. But the most important thing I have to remember is that every word I write brings me closer to the end of the story. I might have to practice meeting deadlines, but more importantly I have to practice finishing stories first. If I can't finish a story, I can't meet a deadline.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

"Writing is the hardest thing you will ever choose to do."

Jayrod and Jenny on Graduation Day

It's time. Time to wipe the dust off this blog and start making it good for something again. Its been a while and I'm grateful that it has. Not because I don't like sharing my thoughts, but because I needed to do some things for me that were more important than being here. Some of those things included joining a twelve step group, saving my marriage, earning bling for my college graduation, and culminating in that graduation. Words fail to express how much it means to be a college graduate. I know this work will change the lives of my wife and children in time.

Of course you didn't come here to listen to me brag about myself. Because let's face it that's pretty damn boring. However seeing as I graduated nearly three months ago that story might be worth sharing. But it isn't. I was depressed for much of the past three months and it crippled me. I sat at work waiting for someone to come in and talk to. And as soon as that picked up I found what I thought would be a great new job. Unfortunately they closed three weeks after I started with them. I soon found myself taking care of my wife after a major surgery, and when I wasn't taking care of her I played Skyrim. I played until I got tired of being depressed. (Note: A sign that your depression isn't clinical is that you can do something to change it.) So I put the game system away, started reading again, and most importantly I began writing again.

Few things have been as difficult as the choice to begin writing again. I stopped around the time I graduated and by that time I hadn't worked on any fiction in nearly a year. I had written plenty of poetry, and too many essays (one essay is too much) but no fiction. That's not a bad thing, except my favorite thing about writing is telling stories. And for some reason I had run out of stories to tell.

Bret Anthony Johnston wrote a book called
"Remember Me Like This". Go buy that book.
And I had to figure out where to start if I didn't think I had anymore stories to tell. I realized I had stories I hadn't finished so of course I hid and played Skyrim and tried to forget I wanted to be a writer. I realized I was afraid after a while, and I couldn't really place why I was afraid. It wasn't until I stopped playing games that I understood. I was afraid because I know "Writing is the hardest thing you will ever choose to do" (Quote by Bret Anthony Johnston). And I wasn't sure I had it in me to do it again.

This past Monday, I was released as the president of a writers group I was a part of. And I found myself so overjoyed that I came home and I wanted to write. The desire to create became stronger than my fear of the words. As I write this today I have written nearly for a week straight. My sentences haven't been perfect, and my ideas still struggle to flow, but I am putting in the effort. I am giving my creativity a chance to flow.

Writing is the most difficult thing we can choose to do. Because as Nikki Giovanni says, "If you wrote from experience you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy." And following empathy to write takes us away from the comfortable. It leaves us to choose to look at tragedies such as what Robin Williams chose to do and get in the same space as he lived and come to understand how depression and Parkinson's Disease drove him to that choice. That's no place any of us wants to go. But thats where the story with meaning will be found.

Oddly enough, I chose to join a twelve step group because I have spent my life avoiding my own feelings. I'd shared empathy with others, but not with myself. I reached for the stars, but misunderstood my own heart. Those who hear the poetry I write that is about me tend to say that it has power that my poetry about other people lacks. I think thats because its hardest for me to find compassion for myself. And that's the choice that I have to make to write.

Today is August 17th and I am jumping back into where I was a couple of years ago as a participant of A Round of Words in Eighty Days (#ROW80). I realize they are 49 days into the challenge, but I need a network of folks to write with. So here I am.

My goal for the next week is to complete a short story I have been working on since NaNoWriMo 2012. That is the only writing project I am concerned with at this time. I'll share a short update on Wednesday with some more musings. Thanks for visiting.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Teaching Materials for Writers Ink: Unblocking Creativity

Sometimes in our lives we embark on journeys that are incredible. Sometimes they completely terrify us. I recently began a journey that does both to me. I began a writing organization on my campus at Weber State University. You might ask why would I do that? It mostly has to do with the fact that I recognize that our teachers shouldn't be solely responsible for helping us to develop our skills as writers. The following is the contents of a small booklet I made for a class I taught on Creativity today. It is my hope that the ideas expressed here will help other writers to learn craft or discover resources that can help them become better writers. Enjoy!

Unblocking Creativity

What is Creativity?

According to the Oxford Dictionary creativity means: relating to or involving the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work. Hopefully you asked after reading that: So what? I know I did. Creativity means something different to each one of us. This personal meaning is what drives us to create and what one of the goals of Writers Ink will be to teach you to protect. But that is a different lesson.

I define creativity as the playground of the mind. We take materials and we create music in words, build worlds in imagination, learn what it means to touch a star, and some few of us will use creativity to cure cancer. Hopefully our creativity will allow us to change our world with as much impact as that team of scientists will.

What gets in the way of our creativity?

Make a list. Really make a list. Some of the things you will see on mine is: Fear of rejection keeps me from creating; I believe that being creative is a luxury I can’t afford right now; and I’m so tired of this project I’m working on that I’m done with it. I don’t know if these sound familiar to you, but I know that there tends to be a pattern with most of our reasons for not creating. That pattern is our self. We are the force that gets in the way of our creativity. So in order to embrace our creativity & develop creative confidence we have to stop getting in our own way. I’m not saying that our reasons for not creating aren’t valid, but it is our responsibility to learn how to work around them.

Tools of our Trade

As writers we must recognize that we are developing skills to enable us to build cohesive arguments, create resonating phrases, and open minds. Among the first skill we must develop is how to create ideas.

Again, make a list. Find out what you already use. Following are some of my tools:

1. A Commonplace book: A place to hold all my good and bad ideas
2. Research on my subject matter
3. My memories, your memories, fictional memories, & dreams
4. Brainstorming (Alone and with trusted friends)
5. Quotations, Art, Driving, and Showers (Places of inspiration)
6. Writing Prompts or Focused Practice

Your list of tools may be longer or look entirely different than this. And that’s okay. Now go share your list with another writer and increase their tool box.

Expressing Creativity

Of course you came to this to learn how to keep your creative flow. I like to think of creativity as a well. A well must be nurtured and taken care of if it is going to give us water throughout our lives. One of the dangers of allowing ourselves to get in the way of our creativity is that we can dry up our well. Thankfully if we tend to ourselves again we can refill our creative wells. Following are four ways we can help keep our wells full of creativity.

1. Pay attention to and explore the world around you. Have you ever seen a picture or quote on Facebook that you thought was awesome? You see things like that when you are paying attention. Take the time to collect quotes and pictures or anything else that inspires you. These put water into the creativity well.

2. Open up, be vulnerable, recognize emotion as a source of energy. This is hard. Sometimes we experience feelings that we don’t want to. We can even create experiences of emotion using music, smells, and watching memorable films. When we as artists are authentic about what we feel it can fill our well.

3. Creativity isn’t an event it is a lifestyle. I have found that the muse only regularly visits the consistent. Remember to keep writing. This is most difficult when you feel blocked. That’s okay keep writing. Having more than one creative project at a time helps with this process. The waters of creativity flow best when we live in such a way that we consistently are working on creating new projects.

4. We must embrace loss and develop creative confidence. Of all the steps this is the most difficult. Artists must endure rejection and loss throughout their lives. Does it hurt? Yes. In my opinion it always should, because we have become numb to inspiration when it ceases to hurt. Embrace the pain. Develop your skills so well that you can have confidence even in rejection. This will help you be resilient enough to keep putting your work out there to make the world a better place.

Creativity as a Journey

Now that we are finished with this class you know everything there is to know about creativity and you are ready to create worlds without end, right? Perhaps. Hopefully this has simply whetted your appetite with some tools to develop your creativity and habits to help you develop the lifestyle. Below you can find resources to help you as you continue on the journey to discover greater creativity. Including the resources I used to create this booklet. May the muse visit you often.

Resources for Creativity

The Artists Way written by Julia Cameron 
The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp 
Kick-Ass Creativity by Mary Beth Maziarz 
The 3 A.M. Epiphany by Brian Kiteley 
The Gift by Lewis Hyde 
Drawing out the Dragons by James A. Owen
David Kelley’s TED talk: How to build your creative confidence 
Julie Burstein’s TED talk: Four lessons in creativity

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Celebration of the Death of DOMA

Taken from George Takei's Facebook Page
The caption to the left is similar to how I looked when I turned on my computer yesterday morning to see some of the best news I have seen in years. The Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA had been put down by the Supreme Court of the United States as unconstitutional. For those of you who are unfamiliar with DOMA, as I once was, it is a law that was signed by President Clinton. Simply it mandated that if a same sex couple got a civil marriage or a civil union that other states did not need to recognize that. Such as a same sex couple that got married in Massachusetts moved to New York the state of New York would not have to recognize that relationship as legal. Not only did DOMA make it difficult for same sex couples to be able to move where they pleased, it made it difficult for them to travel and retain their rights. Such as if a same sex couple would be on vacation in Florida and they were in a car accident the family of the injured party would have rights to visitation of the injured, but the spouse may not have rights of visitation and could even be asked by the family and the hospital to leave. These are the kinds of situations that make the end of DOMA worth celebrating.

However not everyone in the Union will see this as a matter worth celebration. Many people in California donated thousands of dollars to make certain that Proposition Eight passed. And when it did lawmakers were faced with a group of people who proposed that it may be unconstitutional. This is what made DOMA and Proposition Eight so controversial: the fact that people said they wanted X and the Bill of Rights said people should get Y. This is what the Supreme Court among others has been trying to sort out for years since all this began back in 2008. Now that it has been declared unconstitutional there are groups of people who are upset because the Supreme Court did not vote in favor of the people. Instead they elected to give the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community their rights. This is why I celebrate.

However I need to make a confession to you. I am a Mormon. Mormons did much of the funding for Proposition Eight in California. I do not agree with their choice despite some of my beliefs being the same as theirs. I believe that religious marriage is meant to be between a man and a woman. The purpose of that marriage is to have a relationship that lasts longer than our lifetime here on earth and into the eternities before God. None of the doctrine I have read has ever led me to believe that God offers that same opportunity for those of the LGBT community. That is the primary reason why I am against religious marriage for the LGBT community. However civil marriage which is the legal form of the union which is recognized by the state and federal government I believe is crucial to the livelihood of this nation if we want to continue to brand our nation as the land of the free.

The United States of America was established to offer religious freedom to the puritans over two hundred years ago. During that time we have had to redefine freedom multiple times. First we had to figure out what it meant to give the natives freedom. We hurt them as individual nations by taking their lands, corrupting their culture, and expecting them to peacefully respond to our demands. I do not need to describe to you that this went poorly. Next we had to deal with the issue of slavery. This issue lasted much longer because of the belief that blacks were less than human at one point. With the Emancipation Proclamation we purchased a peaceless surrender of the slaves. Over the freedom of slaves we started a civil war, we instituted the Jim Crow Laws, and we oppressed blacks for another hundred years after they were granted their “freedom.” Today we face the issue of Gay Rights and we are responding to it in much the same way we did with same grace and sensitivity that we have with these other issues. We as a people are undereducated about it, fearful of it, and unwilling to recognize in what ways we may be wrong about how we are treating our fellow human beings. Same Sex Marriage is only one of a multitude of rights that the LGBT community is fighting for.

In my celebration of the Death of DOMA I am committing to becoming more educated on how to help support the rights of the LGBT community because I do not want to repeat the mistakes of our past. As a young black man, I still see discrimination towards me and I’ve seen it towards the LGBT community as well. And personally I hurt, because I know they hurt. Civil Rights isn’t about protecting the definition of a word that doesn’t need protection. The definition of marriage changed in the Oxford Dictionary already. And marriage in the context of what the LGBT community is working towards has everything to do with legal rights and nothing to do with trying to take the domestic comfort of the families of heterosexual couples. This is about making us as a people living according to the values that we state in our Constitution to stand by. If we are seeking the Life, Liberty, and Happiness of all the people in our nation then we by definition need to give to our people the same rights that they can be with those they love, take care of their families, and build our nation into the beacon of freedom that it claims to be.

I end this blog with one of my favorite songs. It is by Mackelmore and Lewis and it is called Same Love. I believe if we raise the rising generation to hate themselves, fear the judgment of others, and polarize themselves and others on the issues we face in our world we will fail them. We owe it to ourselves, and our children to educate ourselves that we may be full of love one for another and live in real freedom.

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