Three weeks to deadline and I was stalled. My characters were no longer speaking to each other, let alone me, and I’d been struggling with a scene transition for several days. Trying to shake my story, and myself, out of my funk, I’d taken walks, read a book on my subject, listened to music, switched writing spaces, cleaned my closet, discussed the story with my husband, and generally lost all hope that I’d finish in time. I was debating whether to drop the story altogether when I got a text from a fellow writer working on the same submission call.
“If you’re stuck, I’m happy to help. What’s the conflict? What are the stakes?”
After a brief exchange where I spelled out my characters and basic plot, my story was not only back on track, but moving so fast my fingers couldn’t keep up with my brain.
This is the good that comes from being part of a creative community. It’s easy to get in a rut, to tell yourself that your project is unwanted or unimportant. That’s why even the most introverted creative can benefit from a group of people genuinely excited to share the journey and offer the help we need to make us better. There are clear benefits to joining a community or building one of your own.
A basic need
In his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation”, Abraham Maslow defined five basic needs that all humans have. Basic physiological and safety needs are first, but social belonging needs come right after. Without intimate social connections and the sense of belonging acquired through these connections, Maslow argued that a person can not move on to the realization of their potential. In basic terms, a group of collaborators, mentors, and friends are what help a person thrive. Your circle will become your support when you need encouragement, your connection when you are isolated, and your knowledge base when you’ve hit a roadblock. Everyone needs a place to feel safe and accepted. It’s the only way to get encouragement and keep moving forward.
A place for understanding
It’s helpful to gather where everyone has a core knowledge and uses the same language. Your creative community is where people understand writer's block, cyclical breathing, Rosco gels, or whatever terms apply to your particular art. This is where other people can relate to your frustrations and experience. Creative groups are usually formed because members need a forum to discuss concerns that aren’t important or aren’t considered outside their discipline. For that very reason, many creative groups make themselves approachable to new artists seeking more information.
A chance for growth
It sucks putting your heart and soul into your work only to have it blasted by someone who doesn’t understand the difficulty involved in creating. Being criticized by other makers is a whole different experience. People in your circle should understand that discipline and maturity are a process, not an endpoint. Whether you’re struggling or succeeding, these are the perfect people to offer suggestions for improvement. They have overcome similar problems and offer new perspectives. Your community is the best place to hone your abilities, ask ‘dumb’ questions, find information about workshops, and allow yourself to fail. The right community will help you thrive by offering advice, and asking for some in return.
A way to give back
Being active is a major part of a community. Just as you are given help, you get the chance to share your wisdom with newcomers. Ask about the abandoned stories of your peers. Offer insight on great places to get art materials. Take something that was difficult for you to master and make it easier for the next person by offering your insight. This can be the best part of a community, because you’ll often see the impact of your advice in the output of others. Giving back can remind you why you first got interested in creating.
Whether you find a creative community or build your own, simply having a group to share your ups and down can be the best part of the creative process. The people that understand you, encourage your growth, and offer you opportunities to share your hard-earned experience are people worth keeping around. Whatever your passion, finding your people will help you and your art.
A few days ago I had a startlingly familiar conversation with a writer friend of mine. The gothic-styled urban fantasy idea she’d been thrilled about only a few weeks before, one I thought held real promise, was now causing her no small amount of stress. She wanted to write the story, but it wasn’t working for her.
“I had this whole outline almost done,” she said. “Then I just lost confidence in it.”
“Why?” I pressed. “The idea is worth exploring.”
“I miss writing vampires and people with abilities,” she agreed. “But everybody seems to write vampires.”
There was the crux of the issue. She was feeling drained because the idea didn’t feel fresh to her. She felt like she’d stolen parts of the world she’d dreamt. It wasn’t unique compared to the published and unpublished material she’d seen. To quote the Barenaked Ladies, it had “all been done before.”
That song is a perfect reference. “It’s All Been Done" was the second single off the band’s 1998 album, and while it wasn’t as internationally popular as “One Week” from the same album, it peaked at #1 on the Canadian Singles Chart. In a sense, it’s also stolen material, or, at least a rehash of a very old idea. “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9
Yep. There’s an argument to be made that Steven Page ripped off the Bible. And is he ashamed? Not one bit! Should he be? Not according to Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist. Find your favorite book, song, play, piece of art, Kleon says, and you will find echoes of ideas from other times, cultures, and artists. Even Mother Nature repeats ideas. That’s why we have the German word doppelgänger and why the internet graces us with photographs of civil war soldiers that look identical to Nicolas Cage.
In truth, it’s not a bad idea for creative people to look to others for inspiration. Steal Like an Artist highlights the benefits of mimicry. Kleon advocates strategically selecting pieces that resonate with you, learning the styles and signatures of your influencers, then finding unexplored intersections between those influences. In that space, you are free to play and remix their ideas into something perfectly your own. He quotes writer Jonathan Lethem’s idea that all creative works are only called original when others don’t know or recognize the sources the work references. “What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before.”
In his review of Kleon’s book, T.K. Coleman goes beyond suggesting you should steal like an artist. He says that the pursuit of originality is actually detrimental to the creative process. Coleman warns that chasing the dream of a completely original idea is a distraction. “It usually leads to a self-obsessive focus on saying what’s never been said when all that really matters is saying what you believe, saying what you feel, and saying what you mean.” In his opinion, lack of originality means you are finding your voice, learning your craft. What you need to do is continue adding to your pool of influences and pushing yourself so that your unique style emerges.
The best way to help that style emerge? Kleon advocates artists should play. Creatives have what my family calls “Ooo, shiny!” Something bright and new will catch their eye. If it holds their attention, they’ll start messing around, toying with the idea, picking it apart to see how it works and why they find it so fascinating. Kleon says, “Stuff that’s just play. That’s actually the good stuff. That’s when the magic happens.” Your best work will come out of the unexpected when you’re just having fun.
In the end, my friend decided that playing was exactly what she’d do. She decided to pursue the idea and see how it developed. I applauded her choice. Steal like an artist. Introduce yourself to some new ideas, quit worrying about being original, and make sure you have some fun in the process. It might just be the best idea you can steal.
This week begins a sort of artist spotlight that I'm calling Questions for Creatives. If there is interest, I'm hoping to make this a recurring feature on the blog.
Our first creative comes from Québec where she works in the communications field and writes in her spare time. CM Peters has penned everything from short erotica and fan fiction, to romance novels and elaborate fantasy epics. Her focus is complex, relatable characters, and she's currently editing her new romance/coming of age novel. An excerpt from her story "Body Heat" follows this interview, and you can connect with Peters on her facebook page.
Describe your passion or your current creative project.
I’m a writer through and through, with all the creative aspects, self-doubt, aspirations. I’m in between projects at the moment; waiting on news from a query and deciding what to throw myself into next.
How has your creative process changed or developed over time?
I’ve moved on from fanfics to original works and from writing in French to English. My native tongue in French, but since college, the inspiration to write in French has left the building, mostly due to creative differences and muffling of my talent by professors.
How do you continue to find new ideas?
I don’t find them, they find me. I have tons of characters walking around in my head. Some come a-knockin’, asking to be written. So, I usually go with what inspires me the most.
What was the first thing you created that you were truly proud of?
Wow, uhm… It’s hard to answer that question. Seeing people respond to something I’ve created, written or anything else, usually makes me proud. But taking pride in something, I’d say my first novel, Pawns. From a short story idea, I wrote twenty-eight chapters! I felt a void when it ended and missed my characters.
Do believe in creative block? And if so, what do you do to overcome it?
Very much so. It’s happened to me a few times, for different reasons each time. Time and patience, reading other works, but again, patience with yourself.
Tell me how you continue creating during emotionally difficult times.
It’s my anchor. Writing has saved me from myself more than once. I fuel my energy into it, sometimes to avoid those hardships, sometimes to feed from them.
What is the best advice you’ve ever been given about creativity?
To allow myself time, to be softer with myself about my failures, to take a break once in a while.
What is the best quality for a creative person to have?
An open mind. You never know what’ll come to you.
What kind of research do you do before beginning a new project?
Extensive. It’s one of my joys to do research and plan a new project. I love being as specific and realistic as possible when my project takes place in the real world.
What would you say to people just beginning to explore their own creativity?
Don’t let fear stop you. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it! If you’re a writer, find a pencil and paper that are water resistant and bring it into the shower. The best ideas come while in there!
Excerpt from Body Heat by CM Peters
He roared when he reached her, pressing her against the door to kiss her. He rubbed his cold nose on her cheek. “I think it’s now time to toast me toes by the fire!”
Carina giggled, kissing his nose. “Alright. Go to my room, start a fire, and I’ll get some of tonight’s chili for dinner. The next customers to come in will only arrive tomorrow so we have the night to ourselves, so some time for some body heat,” she said, wiggling her eyebrows.
Liam purred and grinned. “Oh yes! What a lovely plan, doll!”
Snuggling in an oversized quilt in front of the fire for the evening, the couple made plans for a small Christmas, agreeing on only one gift for each other. With chili, corn chips, and whiskey, they were stocked for the night and didn’t move until Liam began snoring in front of the movie they’d started. Carina sighed and nudged him, so he’d wake up.
The evenings were started to get boring, barely three weeks after his arrival. She knew that he was working hard during the day, but she missed spending time with him. At least at the bar, we worked side by side. But she couldn’t hold it against him; he’d traveled thousands of miles to help her.
It was late; everyone was dragging, and it was too warm under the stage lights. The union steward had called the orchestra out on a much-needed break fifteen minutes earlier. Offstage, orchestra members clumped in small groups to grumble or quip about the situation. Onstage, a few individuals silently worked difficult fingerings and wrote notes on sheet music, trying to work out why the sound wasn’t coming together in rehearsal the way it had in their solo practice. They were all strong performers, creative individuals, professional musicians, but right now, they didn’t sound like it.
When everyone returned to their seats, the ensemble started into the same section they had been trying earlier. It wasn’t a particularly difficult movement, but even these seasoned performers tended to rush through. Time after time, the conductor stopped everyone, asking them to mark their music, to wait for his cue. Time after time, the orchestra began, only to fall apart at the same measure. The group was out of sync, and frustrations were high. Finally, the conductor put down his baton. All instruments came to rest on laps.
“We’re not losing the tempo or speeding up,” he declared. “We’re shorting the rests. We’re not giving them their full time because we’re in a hurry to get to the next note. The notes get their moment. Give full time to the rest. When we forget to rest, we never have enough time.”
As if to emphasize his point, the conductor paused a moment, letting the words sink in before he raised his baton. This time, there was a different energy when the orchestra began. The air was not tense. There was less frustration. Everyone knew that all they needed to do was give proper time to rest. They did, and the piece came together.
What an astonishing idea, to give ourselves time to rest. As creative people, we often are focused on productivity: finishing an edit before the deadline, polishing a work in time for performance, completing enough pieces to be juried into a show. What we often forget is tranquility, the quiet needed for the creative process.
In her book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less,, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, suggests that everyone needs active rest. Pang argues that our best work is done four to six hours a day, all at once or in individual segments. That time should be spent focused on work, and the remainder of our time requires rest. This suggestion is echoed by a Scientific American article that delved into Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime. The article highlights Mary Helen Immordino-Yang’s 2012 research paper showing rest is essential for the mental processes that understand identity, human behavior, and ethics. Like stories, identity and ethics are composed of sensory experiences, hypothetical questions, and moral judgments. It’s not surprising that related research suggests that especially creative people use these sections of the brain more often than the typical person.
It’s easy to fall into step with a never-ending to-do list, to keep life so busy that we don’t have the proper time to process information and make something new. We can start to feel guilty about resting or playing. Before we know it, creativity is harder to access. It becomes something we obsess about, a draining task instead of a renewing force. As research shows, we need to remember that we are at our most creative when we set aside time to sleep, play, and enjoy the process.
Similarly, when we are in a hurry to see the reward of our creative efforts, it’s easy to forget the value of letting our work, whatever it is, settle. Actors can come back to a scene the day after rehearsal to find the notes now make more sense. Artists and writers that allow a ‘cooling off period’ return to their work with fresh eyes, ready to make corrections and improvements. Audio and video engineers that leave an individual track come back to it with music or effects that enhance a scene, creating a deeper emotional connection with the audience. During the creative process, taking a step back from your work often culminates in taking a leap forward in the quality of your project.
The mind and body need time away from a project to process information and see the work objectively. As a creative, give yourself and your project a little downtime. Sleep. Meditate. Read. Travel. Bake. Take your rest in whatever way works best for you. Don’t be in a hurry to get to the next scene, book, or note. Create time for rest and it will create time for you.
I've been thinking about creativity lately. I've been rolling around in my head questions about what makes a creative and how creatives fuel that side of themselves. I've delved into books, pulled up websites, watched TED talks, talked to creatives I know, and from what I can tell, everyone has a different process, a way that works for them that may not work for anyone else.
The writers I know often say they are inspired by books they have read or places they have visited. Artists tell me particulars colors or patterns strike them as fun to play with. Musicians have chords or modes they gravitate towards. Comedians and actors observe human nature. Designers find....well, I'm not quite sure yet. I haven't gotten a chance to ask yet.
In my completely unscientific research, I've made a few general observations:
As a Creative, you probably get more than your fair share of solicitation for your skills. Due to the nature of the creative mind, many of us have worked at or with non-profits and want to give back, but, as business people, Creatives also have to balance what is best for themselves and their brand. On one hand, saying no is hard. On the other, creative time is valuable and the number of requests can get overwhelming. How can you give back without killing your creative spirit?
Give it your all
It's easy to think about donating a piece that hasn't sold at your last several shows, but if nobody has bought it, ask yourself if it’s truly the best representation of your skills. Neither your ego nor your client list will get a boost if your donation fails to garner attention. Make sure you give away your best work. Attend the event, if possible, so you can talk to interested bidders. Ask the non-profit for contact information for people who bid on your work so you can do a one-time follow up with those interested in your work.
Be strategic about your donations
Decide how much you are going to give away this year and then plan out your donations based on your schedule and target audience. Is spring your busy season? Save your energy. Donate in the fall when your schedule is lighter or split your donations between specific events throughout the year. Ask fundraisers usual attendance numbers and demographics. Be honest with them about who your work appeals to. This helps your donations reach the right audience for future sales and gives you a solid business reason to graciously decline if you must.
If you don't have the time or resources to donate, consider joining up with a few other creatives. Contribute a short story to a charity book, a song to a relief-aid compilation, or small pieces of art that can be combined to form one unique piece. Collaboration often has a positive impact on an artist. Use the donation request as an excuse to work with friends, swap ideas, and push beyond your usual boundaries.
Work on the Sidelines
If you're not willing or able to make an outright donation of your work, make philanthropy an integral part of creative process. Buy materials from fair trade or environmentally conscious suppliers. Use recycled or reclaimed materials if possible. Send your stories to publishers that support women's rights or LGBTQ representation. Make films that skew away from stereotypes to present real, usually unseen relationships. Consider the companies you support. Every bit counts.
The thought of giving back shouldn't crush your creativity. Think carefully about your donations, work with others or out of the limelight, but make sure to share your very best. Creativity and philanthropy don't have to be mutually exclusive, and, if you approach your donation the right way, both your business and your work can benefit.
As you may have noticed, sometimes it happens that life takes over my ability to post as frequently as I'd like. However, being busy means that when I do get a chance to post, I've got lots of updates for everyone.
So here's what I've been up to -
Two short stories went out in February and the beginning of March, one dark erotic short story and one succinct, almost flash-fiction length fairy-tale. I hope to post soon that they were accepted, but even if they aren't, I'm excited about how both turned out and feel they are a good representation of my current abilities as an author.
Last October, my story People who live in Glass Sanitoriums was published in HAUNT, a collection of nine tales about haunted dwellings. This was the second anthology put together by a writer collaborative group I work with. The experience has gone so well the last two times that we're working on a third anthology called Summer Fair to be published later this year. Everyone involved has been asked to brainstorm on what could happen during summer festivals. The ideas that have been tossed back and forth make me very excited about how this project will turn out. Bonus, Aleisha Knight Evans, who designed the stunning covers for the previous two anthologies, has agreed to come back and work with us on this collaboration. More info as that develops.
I've been working quite a bit with SinCyr Publishing. Because of my recent proofreading, I can without a doubt recommend their recent romantic urban fantasy A Nose for Trouble by Jill Webb. It's a quick read with a healthy dose of mystery and unexpectedly fun characters. In November, CM Peters and I co-edited Working It, a collection of sexy stories from the workplace. We're planning on collaborating on another project for SinCyr late this year, this time a romantic anthology around a bookish theme. The pitch has been accepted and we're working out details. The open call should go up next month.
I continue to plod away at my novel in progress and am looking at a few other writing projects for the year that I'll keep under wraps for now. No conventions so far this year, although I did help sponsor the Writers On the River event happening in July because it helps support Thistle Farms and the Center for Prevention of Abuse. We'll see if there's time later this year.
And finally, a shameless plug for another project of mine. For anyone interested, I've started a website called Creativity Blender where I'm exploring the idea of creativity, what it is, and what helps creative people be more creative. It's a very new project and one I'm working on in my limited spare time, so be patient, but I will be trying to write blog posts and link to creative articles and projects I find. Check it out if you have time.
Bob Ross tells us that “We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents,” and that “Talent is a pursued interest. Anything that you're willing to practice, you can do.”
All respect to the PBS master, my "happy little accidents" tend to look like Rorschach inkblots. I am not a painter. I know this. There is a disconnect between my brain and my hand once a paintbrush is in my fingers and I'm unwilling to put in the hours to become better because I'm more interested in pursuing other creative interests. But I find inspiration in paintings and painters. Both have crept into my writing, often in unusual and unexpected ways.
I'm a firm believer that creativity is something you practice, that inspiration may come unexpectedly, but that you have to practice being creative for that inspiration to become something worthwhile. Turns out, science has backed this up. In a recent study, researchers at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, linked musical improvisation (i.e. a creative task) with increased brain activity compared to rote playback or other less creative tasks, suggesting that creativity is a distinct mental state. The study concluded that "Our findings further imply that creativity can be nurtured through training, and illustrate that immersion in the creative state has high cultural and economic value because it yields higher quality products.”
Would Bob's "happy little accidents" have looked more like my blobs than birds if he hadn't put in the time and effort to hone his craft? I think so. Still, I advocate that a steady diet of unusual-to-you encounters is just as vital as training. Along with your practice, spend an evening attending that wine (or whine) and paint workshop, read a book, or listen to a live band. Make sure it's something you think you'll enjoy. It doesn't have to be expensive or difficult, just something you don't always do for yourself. Call it fuel for creativity.
In her book The Artist's Way, Julie Cameron calls them "Artist Dates." Along with the daily pages she promotes for creatives, Cameron says that the purpose of "Artist Dates" is to ensure creative outflow. They're a play date with yourself, a way to replenish the creative well you pull from to...well, create. Hours to years after your brain processes that date experience, it can pop up as dance move, a short story, or part of a lesson you are sharing with other creators.
So creatives, take some inspiration this week to train your creativity. Do a little hard work, then reward yourself with something new to stimulate your brain. Tell me about your training, unusual experience, or what you're creating in the comments below.
Have a great week, Creatives.
For those of you who missed it, I had another short story published last week in the second annual charity anthology for a small collaboration of writers I like to work with. Last year, Marie Piper talked five writers into crafting novellas based around the theme of being snowed in. The resulting romance collection was Melt, and all proceeds went to charities that support mental health research and aide.
This year, Ms. Piper challenged us all to create short stories around the theme of a haunted house for the aptly named Haunt. The writing group swelled to nine talented authors with backgrounds ranging from science-fiction, to historical romance and each author brought their A game for another good cause. All proceeds from Haunt will go to Chicago-area charities that provide services for the homeless. Click here to read about the inspiration on behind the stories on Gregory Norris's Blog.
I've since been asked why I participate in these collections. The reasons are many. The camaraderie of talented creators is always invigorating. It's fun to see where my brain will take me when I'm under the constraints of a specific call. But mainly, in a world as full of upheaval as ours has been the past few years, it feels good to put my talents to use helping others.
Now you can feel good by purchasing a book you know will help others. Go grab your copy of Haunt (get Melt too if you haven't already) and settle in for some great short stories that also help put a little good back in the world. I promise it's worth every penny.
It's been a while since I've posted. Those of you who keep up with my various forms of social media might have seen that I've been working on a few different projects and I've had friends in from out of town. Life will do that.
So here's what I've been up to -
Since it's October we'll start with the spook stuff. Get the shivers with HAUNT, a collection of nine brand-new and wide-ranging tales all about haunted dwellings. The call asked for what we thought of when we thought "Haunted House" so these stories range from a little romantic to straight up suspense thriller. I've been gleefully surprised to see what my fellow authors did with their stories. Haunt is the second annual charity anthology by some of my author friends (following last year's MELT - Link here) and all proceeds will go to Chicago-area charities that provide services for the homeless population. The anthology wraps with my story People who live in Glass Sanitoriums. It goes on sale Oct 17 but you can Pre-Order it Here.
Love Thy Neighbor, my short story about femdom in an abandoned church, is in SinCyr Publishing's new release GETTING IT Buy it here This Femdom Anthology is comprised of thirteen sexy stories ranging from the sweet, new Domme finding her footing to the young man discovering that pain doesn’t have to be self-inflicted. Whether French cuisine tickles your tongue, pain twists into pleasure, or rape fantasies occupy your dreams, this delicious collection is for you. Mild dominance and hardcore BDSM entwine in Getting It, pushing characters and readers to embrace their innermost sensational desires in healthy, consensual ways. The book is edited by S.B. Roark and Sienna Saint-Cyr. SinCyr Publishing is dedicated to "Shifting rape culture one sexy story at a time."
It was big news for me earlier in the year, and this November you finally get to see the finished product. The lovely CM Peters and I get to launch our own anthology for SinCyr Publishing. WORKING IT is full of hardworking men and women who like to play just as hard. We've got a fantastic lineup of authors both new and well-established. The presale link will be out to you soon!
I'm reading as much as possible right now, letting some thoughts bubble on a new novel I've been itching to start and possibly another collaboration in the works. Never a dull moment!
Harley Easton is a Renaissance woman dabbling in everything life offers. She's worked at a theme park, found expert witnesses, been a guest lecturer at a national museum, and worked with medical students. Putting experience and insanity to good use, she's become an author specializing in erotic, romantic, and speculative fiction.