Struck by Lightning

(by Daniel R. Jones)

A poet whom I greatly admire recently shared the following quotation:

“A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times.” -Randall Jarrell

Those familiar with Randall Jarrell will recall that he was no stranger to being struck by lightning. In fact, I’d say he could bottle it. More often than not, his poems seemed to hit their mark. But was he on to something?

I had a professor in grad school who told me that if I’m being honest with myself, in a year’s time I only write two or three truly good poems. If I’m having a particularly productive year, I might get lucky and write four or five.

At the time, it felt painstakingly pessimistic. But as I look at my corpus of work, I’m forced to reckon with the fact that regardless of my output in any particular year, the amount of really good poems never jumps much higher than three to five per year. 

So, what does that mean for my creative process? To be honest, absolutely nothing. If we’re going to extend the metaphor that Jarrell put forth, there’s not a lot I can do to “up” my chances of getting struck by lightning. I suppose I could employ a lightning rod or splash around in a body of water. 

But the best thing I can do to ensure I can bottle that lightning when it comes is to simply stand in the thunderstorm. 

Taking a more spiritual approach to it, I think the artist who serves Christ is actually beholden to such a task. As Jesus’ disciples, we have a mandate to listen for the Spirit and dictate accordingly. In the immortal words of a poetic titan- “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

So with the mindset of Jarrell and the obedience of Milton, I’ll stand and wait in the thunderstorm, hoping and praying for lightning.

Talking Shop: Rabbit Trails

Recently, while drafting up a novel, I had to outline a scene that contained a smorgasbord of syrups. I didn’t have an IHOP within stone’s throw of my writing desk, so I fired up Google. Of course, within minutes, I was knee deep in search results, reading about the savory taste of birch syrup and the methods of creating a simple syrup from honey and water.

Your friendly-neighborhood-writing-professor just recoiled in horror. Conventional wisdom has always cautioned against such distractions while writing.

Doubtless, you’ve heard these warnings:

“The second you open an internet browser, you’ll break your flow state!”
“Multitasking in that way will wreak havoc on your writing.”
“Before you sit down to write, take a hammer to your internet router, cut your telephone lines, and board up your windows!”

This is one area where I break with tradition. That strange, ancillary effect writing has—forcing us to dive into unknown subjects—is a reason in itself to write. I’ve found curiosity begets more curiosity. The rabbit-holes I find myself wandering down are a boon for the creative process. At times, what started as the first draft of a story has caused me to learn more about architecture, vocations, nomenclature associated with various industries, and geography. In moments such as these, writing a novel feels as instructive and educational as my experience in college as a journalist.

So, my advice is simple: feel free to carve out some time to write without interruption. But also schedule some time with a little more leeway. Allow your brain a little more leash every now and again, and it just might do wonders for your creative process.

Motivation is a Mechanism in your Brain

(by Daniel R. Jones)

If I had a dime for every time I heard someone weasel their way out of the creative life by saying they don’t “feel inspired,” I could quit my day job. Others will go days, weeks, or even months without picking up their pencil to work on a new drawing.

If you are comfortable with this lack of production, that’s entirely acceptable. For most, there is no moral imperative to keep creating artwork. We often place unrealistic stress on ourselves to “produce,” and the goal of this blog post is certainly not to shame others for their lack of consistency.

But at times, most of us find that we do wish we were more motivated. We hem and haw and wait for the moment that inspiration will strike. This, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding of motivation.

Most people think that the chain of events that leads to the accomplishment of something goes like this:

Motivation>Task>Task>Task>Completion

Since the first domino never falls, they don’t begin their first task, and they make no headway in their creative life.

We tend to think of motivation as an abstract concept, like that of the Muse. In reality, we can easily dupe our brain into providing “motivation” through simple physiology.

The neurotransmitter most associated with motivation in the brain is dopamine. Simply put, when your brain needs to get things done, signaling of dopamine occurs, and you feel the compulsion to complete a task. This is why people all across the world guzzle coffee each morning, desperately trying to tap into this physiological reaction in the brain.

Endogenous dopamine, (that is, dopamine naturally occurring in the brain,) can actually be utilized in a much simpler way. Numerous studies have shown that ticking a task off your To-Do List, no matter how simple or trivial, activates this neurotransmitter.

In much the same way that strength-training tells your brain that it needs to grow more muscle, completing a task tells your brain that you’ll need more dopamine.

So, in actuality, the chain of events that leads to productivity goes like this:

Task>Motivation>Task>Motivation>Task>Completion

Have you ever wondered why on some days, you’ll get into a rhythm and clean your whole house in a whirlwind, while on other days, you can barely muster up the strength to do anything but watch TV on your couch?

This is why.

It’s the same rationale that leads countless self-help experts to advise people to start their day with the simple act of making their bed. These “gurus” know that by accomplishing one menial task, you’re cascading a series of events in your brain that will likely lead to the completion of many more.

So, what’s the secret? An incredibly simple one: any time you’re feeling unmotivated, complete one miniscule task, and give yourself permission for that to be the end of it. Tell yourself, “I’ll just sharpen my pencils to prepare them for the next time I’m ready to draw,” or “I’ll open up my Word Processor and just jot down three ideas for a short story.”

Before you know it, you’ll be halfway through drawing or writing your next masterpiece.

Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Poorly

(by Daniel R. Jones)

A shop-worn adage you’ve probably heard countless times states “Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing well.”

But recently, I came across a counterintuitive twist on the aphorism: 

“Anything that’s worth doing, is worth doing poorly.”

The application on this iteration is a little more difficult to parse out. Why would you want to do something poorly? 

Well, you wouldn’t. But that’s exactly the point.

Consider the following scenario: you accidentally snooze past your 6 a.m. alarm. You look at the clock and it’s 6:45 a.m. You’d planned on running a mile and getting some weight training in. But because you’ve overslept, you only have 45 minutes before you need to hop in the shower, not the hour and a half you’d allocated for working out.

“Forget it,” you think. “Even if I started now, I wouldn’t be able to get a full workout in. I’ll just sleep a little longer and pick it back up tomorrow.”

But if working out is worth doing, it’s worth doing it poorly. Which is to say, if you can’t go on a mile run and a one-hour weightlifting session, it’s still better to do some HIIT exercises for 15 minutes and lift weights for half an hour. Beats doing nothing, right? Better to do something poorly than not at all.

And yet, we constantly go to war with ourselves, allowing our self-defeating tendencies to win out:

-You had a donut in the break room, so the diet starts tomorrow.
-You broke down and bummed a cigarette after swearing you’d quit, so this whole day is a wash.
-You’ve only got 15-minutes to work on that foreign language you’re studying, so what’s the point?

What if, in every area, we took to heart the adage that “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly?”

I believe that artists, a group who have a proclivity toward perfectionism, are among those who would best be served by taking this advice. 

You’ve got an idea for a painting, but you’re worried your lack of technical mastery will overshadow your artistic vision. Oh well, paint it poorly.

You enjoy writing, but you don’t think you can write the Great American Novel just yet. Too bad. Start anyway.  

You love the idea of playing guitar, but you’re middle-aged so you’d be very behindNo excuses; take the lessons.

At the end of the day, the only way toward mastery of anything is to begin. Once you start, you’ll likely do things poorly for a while. But anything worth doing is worth doing poorly, so get to work.

Five Quick Tips to Beat Writer’s Block

(by Daniel R. Jones)

I’m convinced every living writer has at least one shared experience: staring at a blinking cursor on a word processor, entirely unsure of how to proceed. And although writer’s block might be the plight of every wordsmith, there are a few tips and tricks that help to keep it at bay. Here are five techniques I’ve recently put into practice to stop procrastinating and start writing:

1. Practice Mindfulness Meditation to eliminate “White-Room Syndrome”

White-Room Syndrome occurs when you haven’t added enough sensory detail to help your reader adequately imagine a scene’s setting. Instead, it gives off the impression that all the action and dialogue is occurring in a “white room.” It’s important to note that in terms of description, quality beats quantity. You don’t need to pad your chapter with blocky purple prose and lush description. Instead, your description should match the content of your book. Consider, for instance, the sparse, austere description employed in The Road by Cormac McCarthy. In such a novel, a Tolkien-esque description of flora and fauna would hardly be appropriate.

In order to combat white-room syndrome, writers can utilize a pretty simple trick. Prior to writing, immerse yourself in a 15-minute mindfulness-meditation session. When you’ve tuned your brain to soak up all sensory input, you’ll be better able to draw on your five senses and write compelling settings. This can be easily coupled with the next exercise, which is to… 

2. Shower, as it’s a Poor Man’s Sensory Deprivation Tank

Have you ever noticed you strike upon some of your best ideas while in the shower? Did you ever stop to wonder why that is? The concept here is simple. The shower acts as a sort of poor man’s sensory deprivation tank, drawing out your inner-thoughts more easily. While showering, your eyes are typically shut (or at least they have access to the unexciting images of a tiled wall,) your tactile senses are stimulated by the hypnotic drizzle spouting from your showerhead, and the running water creates a steady white-noise that drowns out conversations or the television in the other room.  

The net effect of being in a shower is that you’re keeping all of your senses busy with a static input. This allows you to focus inward, and can greatly improve your creative powers. When you’ve turned down the dial on all of your senses, so to speak, the volume of your mind is turned up and your brain can go out and play.

3. Create “Stand-ins” for Characters

If you’ve got a great concept for a scene, but you haven’t yet fleshed out your characters, an easy way to commit that scene to paper is by using a “character stand-in.” Get a rough approximation of the type of person your character is, and then substitute the closest analogue you can find from fiction. You can always go back and add nuance later.

Need an unflappable leader who eschews the rules for your suspense thriller? Pretend Captain Kirk from Star Trek is facing the same problems as your main character, and make him react accordingly. Do you want the protagonist of your Rom-Com to be a man who uses humor as a defense mechanism? Write the first chapter from the perspective of Chandler Bing from Friends.  You get the idea.

4. Use Word Association (with music)

Simple word association has been a staple in my writing arsenal for years. If I am truly at a loss as to where to begin writing, I put on some music, pace around, and let my brain off its leash. You can do this by either latching on to a lyric and “giving the horse its head” when it comes to your thoughts, or you can literally sit in front of a word-processor and type in stream-of-consciousness everything that comes into your brain. Personally, I find that physical movement helps loosen up my thought patterns, but your mileage may vary.

5. Try Word Sprints

This is an idea that first appeared to me in 5,000 Words Per Hour by Chris Fox. As the name of said book implies, Chris’ creative output is astronomical. The idea here is simple: you set a timer, sit down to write, and don’t allow yourself to stop or become distracted until after the alarm has sounded. This exercise is absolutely a numbers game: by measuring how many words you write, you can set lofty goals as you gradually increase your word-count. In his book, Chris delves into alternative methods to up the ante, such as using dictation softwarebut these are optional.

Talking Shop: Are You Predicting the Automobile or the Traffic Jam?

(by Daniel R. Jones)

If there’s any guilty pleasure that I indulge, it’s a great sci-fi story.

While works such as those that belong to Vonnegut, C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, and Heinein’s Stranger in a Strange Land may be classified as “high literature,” the vast majority of sci-fi is considered genre fiction–often eschewed by academia as being of a lower-tier than literary fiction.

Maybe it’s because of the pulpy background. after all, most speculative fiction (whether sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or noir) comes from pulp magazines that could be purchased for a dime. Maybe it’s because they were originally marketed toward children alongside comics and superhero stories. Or maybe it’s just plain, intellectual snobbery.

In any event, despite its tendency to explore deep themes of philosophy (a la Ubik by Philip K. Dick or The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin,) politics (i.e. 1984 by George Orwell and the Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin,) and religion (A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, “Nine Billion Names of God” by Arthur C. Clarke, and Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis) this genre is often eschewed by more literary-minded readers.

But it shouldn’t be. 

Because if there’s one thing that well-written sci-fi does well, it’s to take a deep look into the softer sciences–those of sociology, psychology, philosophy, and politics. Ushered in by “New Wave” sci-fi authors, the genre’s themes deepened. The style became more subtle. The prose improved. Rather than asking questions pertaining to hard sci-fi–“What might first contact with an alien civilization look like?” or “What sort of technology could get us out of our solar system?”–this New Wave asked the deeper questions. It asked questions more likely relegated to theology, philosophy, and sociology textbooks, such as “Would an advance in technology fundamentally change human nature?” and “What exactly constitutes ‘human nature’ and can it be recreated through artificial intelligence?” and “Is ‘the Singularity’ an actual possibility?” and “What social conventions, folkways, and mores do humans exhibit as a species?”

Perhaps the main thrust of intellectual science fiction was best summarized by Frederick Pohl, who stated “A good science-fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”

What about your own writing? Is it superficial, or does it ask the hard questions? Does it predict the automobile, or the traffic jam?

It’s the latter that I prefer to write, and it’s the latter I prefer to read. 

As a reminder, I’m currently on the lookout for short stories of the speculative fiction variety done well. Sci-fi, Fantasy, Flash Fiction; you name it. If you think your story might fit the bill, check out the submission guidelines and send it my way. 

Talking Shop: The Case for Frivolity in Art

This blog resides at the intersection of two subjects: that of spirituality and art.

If you believe in either of the two, the subject probably matters a great deal to you. What could be more important than your relationship with God? And why shouldn’t you care very deeply about the very expression of your soul? 

Of course you should care. These two subjects are taken more seriously by their–practitioners, we’ll say, than anything else.

But at the same time, both topics also demand a sense of levity that can be markedly absent from their discourse, writ large. How often have you heard a sermon that was devoid of liveliness? And how often have you read a poem by someone who clearly takes themselves too seriously? In truth, you’ve likely experienced both at some point in your life.

G.K. Chesterton, a theologian and a creative-writer, never shied away from employing a little lightheartedness. In fact, he once stated, “What can one be but frivolous about serious things? Without frivolity, they are simply too tremendous.”

If this sounds like an oxymoron to you, well, he wasn’t called “the Prince of Paradox” for nothing!

In any event, he was so adamant about the above quotation that he reiterated its sentiments multiple times throughout his life, stating, “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light,” and even, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”

While the full import of Chesterton’s statement can be difficult to discern, this much is clear: he believed that a relationship with Christ was anything but stuffy and stifling. After all, isn’t joy a fruit of the Spirit?

But if the church can fall prey to a stifling seriousness, academia is certainly no better. Many self-important painters, poets, and novelists have churned out example after example of joyless art. In fact, literati as a whole tends to eschew work that they view as “low-brow” or less serious, whether it be *gasp* “genre fiction” or “light-verse” poetry.

But what’s wrong with utilizing some tropes, if it’s effective in conveying a point? (See Ursula Le Guin’s masterful works of sci-fi and fantasy, for example.) And some of the greatest writers in recent memory dabbled in light-verse poetry, including W.H. Auden, Dorothy Parker, and–notably, Chesterton himself.

In short, I think we would all do well to take ourselves a bit less seriously at times. Perhaps my opinions on the subject can best be summed up in the following aphorism by the Samurai master Miyamoto Musashi: “Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.”

May we all strive to do so.

Talking Shop: The Prose Poem

Almost no creative-writing form is more “en vogue” right now than the prose poem. And why not? The prose poem is a tantalizing, versatile format that combines (ideally) the lyricism and conventions of poetry and applies them to a format that best resembles prose on the page.

There are no line breaks, rhyme, or strict meter involved; just paragraphs on a page.

It seems that the literati have flocked to this medium..and rightfully so! There is endless potential to utilize new rhetorical and artistic tricks with the relatively new format. 

Still, the form is not without its dangers. 

I’ve noticed an increasing trend toward “bad” prose poems. As of late. I suppose with the invention of any new form, it can be expected that writers will abuse it on a long enough timeline. The problem with bad prose poems–and there are truly some horrendous ones out there–all stem from a writer’s misunderstanding of what the prose poem’s purpose is.

Maybe it’s easiest to start by definition by negation. I can pretty quickly compile a short list of what prose poems aren’t or at least shouldn’t be:

1. Prose poems aren’t an easy excuse to avoid line breaks. Some poets eschew fixed forms in favor of free-verse just because they don’t want to be bothered with learning meter and scansion. Similarly, some writers take an undisciplined approach with prose poems–choosing the form simply because they don’t want to put any thought or work into how a poem should be broken up. What’s easier? Learning the power of enjambment, intentional ambiguity, and double-meanings through line breaks–seeing them as a poetic device in and of themselves, or just slopping the words onto the page in neat little paragraphs? Obviously, the latter. But just as free-verse doesn’t mean a poem is allowed to be without meter and rhythm, so a prose-poem must have intentional thought “baked in.”

2. Prose poems aren’t flowery sounding prose passages. Sprinkling a little alteration atop a narrative description does not a prose poem make. Too often, writers fall in love with a short prose-y passage they write, and rather than fleshing it out into a full short story or poem, they slap the moniker of “prose poem” on top and call it good. A prose poem needs to be able to stand on its own two feet. It must “work” as a creative writing piece unto itself.

3. Prose poems aren’t a novelty for the sake of novelty. This is, perhaps, the most important of the three, and it’s the heart of what I’m getting at with my previous two points, anyways. “Form follows function,” as the popular architectural maxim states. Which is to say, a prose poems format should serve the content of the poem. It should somehow make it better. The format of “prose poem” is just one piece of the writing that must work with all the rest to create the intended effect in the reader.

A few examples of how this can work come to mind:

1. Some prose wants to be poetry and some poetry wants to be prose. A prose poem operates in that margin, creating tension. Conversely,  as a former classmate once pointed out to me, some pieces seem to have “dual citizenship” in multiple formats (a prose poem can simultaneously be creative nonfiction piece, for example.) 

2. A prose poem can create a “breathless” quality that the writer might be trying to achieve. Coupled with some stream-of-conscious content, the prose poem can come at you “all at once” accentuated by its lack of line breaks.

3. Prose poems can couple well with experimental writing styles. I’ve read successful prose poems structured as numbered lists, “found” poems, and even a nutritional label. The possibilities and combinations are endless.

The crux of the issue is this: a good prose poem is intentional. There are reasons why the writer chose to use that form versus another. If you want to ensure that you’re crafting quality prose poems, consider whether it serves the material or is simply a wonky embellishment.

The two types of writers: Writing vs. Written

Dorothy Parker famously quipped, “I hate writing. I love having written.”

While I adore the Queen of Wit, her and I part ways on this subject. 

So often, in the literati parlance, you hear the same sorts of adages. People down through the ages have echoed the same mentality. Some famous examples to illustrate the point are as follows:

“I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on until I am.” – Jane Austen

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway

“I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.” – Gustave Flaubert

A large quantity of writers throughout the years have seemed to prefer “having written” to writing. On the surface, it’s pretty easy to understand why. There’s nothing quite as dopamine-inducing as looking down at a completed manuscript and knowing that it only exists as a fruit of your labor.

Still, I can’t quite agree with the sentiment.

For me, the writing–the actual act of putting pen to paper or clicking the keys with my fingertips approaches sacramental. Perhaps you can chalk it up to my affinity for poetry, but I actually prefer the “main event” to the moment when I can throw my pencil down with a sigh.

At the risk of sounding reductive, I think there’s a fairly black-and-white distinction to be made between two types of writers. Much like you can supposedly divide novelists into the two groups “plotters” or “pantsers,” I think you can divide writers by those who enjoy the writing and those who enjoy “having written.” 

You can think of the writing/written binary as Apollonian vs. Dionysian. 

The Apollonian writers enjoy having written. The process is but a means to the end. What really counts is having the ink dry. Each of the quotations above illustrates this point of view.

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with Apollonian writers! I, too, love checking boxes and hitting deadlines. With that said, I think there’s another (perhaps rarer) type of writer that doesn’t fit this schematic.

The Dionysian writer revels in the process. The actual intoxicating act of thinking up new ideas is where it’s at for this type. The writing is as important or more important than the finished product. I believe myself to be among these types.

Here are a few quotations from the greats that serve as a sort of “counterweight” to the aforementioned “Apollonian” writers:

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” – Anais Nin

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” – Anne Frank

“If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often. It’s a mysterious condition. It’s much like the life of a Catholic nun. You’re married to a mystery.” –Leonard Cohen

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” – Ray Bradbury

What about you? Do you think that this division of writer-types is valid? If so, which do you count yourself among?