The dreaded “full creative freedom”

full-creative-freedom“Do whatever you want, you have full creative freedom!

I cringe when I hear those dreaded words. You should too. No creative ever wants full creative freedom. We need parameters, deadlines, timeline, budgets, brand identity guidelines, licensing guidelines, whatever. You might as well be clearing snow from the tarmac at Liberty International with only a toy beach shovel knowing a 747 could come barreling in from any direction at any moment with no notice. Yes, the idea is really that stress inducing.

So why do I bring this up? Because I’ve heard this probably a billion times now and I bet you have too. It’s not out of malice mind you, it’s not like your manager or the VP way up the line intended to cause you turmoil, they think it’s what you desire. To the outside world, the one thing all of us creatives desire more than anything else – more than a pay raise, recognition for our hard work or a long overdue promotion – is full creative freedom. They can’t be more off the mark.

It’s a simple fact for those not in the know: full creative freedom paralyzes us with fear and anxiety. And that leads to less than desirable execution of the job at hand. And an even less than desirable job performance flag on our annual reviews.

For everyone else in the know trying to curb this problem from damaging your ego and corrupting your portfolio, I offer you these recommendations derived from my many years of trials and tribulations:

1. Ask for parameters, i.e. deadlines, intended goals, all that stuff you need and want to know.

Demand it, set a timeframe for reviews. Confirm the intent of the creative work at hand. When they say, “whatever works for you” tell them tagging your street name on each of the south-facing cubicle walls probably won’t accomplish the goal. Fun, yes!

2. Be polite and respectful, but don’t be a doormat.

It’s easy to feel compelled to say yes to everything the boss tells you. The reality is, saying yes to everything creates two problems: 1. you take on more work than you can or should handle for the timeframe; and 2. you become the go-to-guy for doing all the garbage work because no one expects you to say no. Bottom line: learn to say no, respectfully, and for valid reasons. Most importantly, don’t be pompous about it.

3. Be honest.

Tell the boss that full creative freedom is much too broad and therefore vague. She or he should appreciate this perspective, most likely having to endure a similar matter in their own job history. Honesty goes a long way in the professional world, and is often appreciated and admired.

4. Don’t bitch and complain to your co-workers about the burden you allowed yourself to take on.

First, if you allowed it to happen, you have no one to blame but yourself. Suck it up, deal with it. Don’t complain. Secondly, if you do complain to your peers, guess what? Rumors spread, faster than that blood rush to your head during that dare to hang from the hotel balcony by your feet at Spring Break. No, I never did that, I just had to create a far-fetched scenario to make sure you’re paying attention. Point is: follow the first three steps and this fourth will not need to apply. You’re  a smart person, do the right thing.

Whether you follow my advice is your ultimate decision. I share it based on a career’s worth of successes and mistakes made in the creative field. And my goal is to help you, the reader, learn from my experiences. All I ask is that you accept or decline what I have to offer with respect and dignity. I wish you all success in your creative endeavors, and to pay it forward.

Good luck.

From the Creatively Oblivious to the Self-Aware

Never underestimate the power your mood holds over your creative work. I put mood up there with inspiration and incentive. Good moods lend themselves to producing good work, great moods for even better work. However, bad moods not only lead to poor work, but unfinished and post-deadline deliveries, and that’s why you need to take notice.

Self-awareness is a valuable attribute for anyone producing creative work. It should be part of the standard art school curriculum alongside other relevant subjects including psychological health and well-being, placed at the same level as Art History and Aesthetics. A holistic approach to a positive mindset can mean the difference between success and failure in the creative business.

Artists carry a stigma of brooding and general moodiness in American culture. An unfortunate contradiction to the celebrated and enlightened artist found in other cultures around the world. Perhaps this is because their efforts go unnoticed and under-appreciated in our society where hype is valued above integrity. Think summer blockbuster films and the huge overpriced video game releases each holiday season. The brooding artist stereotype does a wonderful disservice to creative folk of all types, as any other stereotype does. It will only change if enough artists consistently present themselves in a more positive light.

In the spirit of giving, because that’s the popular phrase to toss around at the moment, here are my suggestions on building your self-awareness to avoid becoming creatively oblivious. All actions that I have found to work well for me and I hope will benefit you too. By the way, I wasn’t intending to turn this into a touchy-feely confidence-boosting self-help thing; that would be so out of character for me.

You can’t change the people around you, but you can change whom you are around.

If someone else’s actions or behaviors are negatively affecting yours, do yourself a favor and remove yourself from the situation. Be respectful and respectable. Don’t pick a fight or complain. Don’t even consider trying to change the person to meet your immediate needs. If another person inquires about your removal from a situation, respond honestly about your needs with everything else in this paragraph in mind. Do not unload your frustrations unless you’re itching for a fight.

I bet you didn’t already know any of this. Right? Maybe in a different context. Or it has gone forgotten.

Recognize that you have full control over yourself.

Don’t be an ass towards others about your creative needs. Respect is key here too. Treat others no different than you expect them to treat you. This is groundbreaking advice you should have learned in kindergarten and from the people who raised you, even if wolves raised you.

Establish your creative space.

You need your quiet alone space. An environment you have complete control over where you can shut the door and not be disturbed. Where you can blast the Dropkick Murphys, Rihanna, or the Boston Pops when the mood hits. Where you can write by candlelight and an open window during a thunderstorm or paint under a full spectrum balanced floodlight rig. Whatever works. You’re full in control, and if you complain, do yourself a favor and punch yourself in the gut and stop complaining.

Pay attention to the quality of your work. Always.

Now you don’t want to enter the bad practice of editing as you create, that will stunt your flow and productivity. It’s expected that a first or rough draft is far from perfect, so let it happen, be shameless. However, as you revise and edit, take notice of how the work is shaping up. Is the quality sub-par in comparison to your usual output? If so, take a look at yourself; chances are the problem lies in your outlook. Straighten it out before you get back to work. Remember, you are in complete control. The same applies to writer’s block or other analogous scenarios in any medium.

Don’t spend your energy venting frustrations to others, use that energy for your art.

You woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning? That’s nice. No one wants to hear about it at work or the coffee shop or the bar. Seriously, no one does. Don’t bother trying. Refocus that kinetic energy toward your creative work. Take that anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, whatever; fashion it into a galvanized six foot spike and drive that passion into your art so hard the room is splattered in a colorful array of your creative juices. It feels great!

Whether you choose to take my advice or run amuck with your brooding self, just remember: the quality of your work is effected by how you feel.

The creative process: work ethic vs. inspiration

“I don’t want to write, it’s too hard,” says practically every American child sitting at the kitchen table with homework spread out past bedtime.

That was the first thought I had when considering the value of a hard work ethic versus inspiration in the life of the creative for this blog. I know, I just used creative as a noun, that’s what us creative people in the professional world are typically called. If we were creating art for art’s sake we would be known as artists. Regardless, creativity requires a lot of hard work no matter the medium, discipline, and audience; it all comes from the same place. Some days it flows, everything is happy and the end result is clearly in sight. Other days you’re punching holes into the walls, dropping your head in your hands and, on occasion, throwing your whole body through walls. A book I recently read by Blaine Hogan, Untitled: Thoughts on the Creative Process, captures this struggle:

This is the creative process. For the most part it’s just plain old, unsexy work. It is slogging in front of the computer, canvas, or blank piece of paper, hammering out words and images in hopes of better days. And then, all of a sudden, a flash of brilliance. A phrase comes to mind and your heart is full. (Hogan, Locations 878-880)

We all hope it’s a flash of brilliance that strikes, and I don’t mean that to sound pessimistic. The simple fact is that it’s a subjective thought that I’m spending my words on right now. If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m procrastinating as I think this topic through and type it. I had a vision to tackle the polarizing topic that’s eating everyone’s brains and I’m falling flat on execution. I know, hyperbole and superfluous. Pushing myself back on topic now.

Vision is easy. Ideas are even easier. It’s execution that separates the amateurs from the pros. (Hogan, Location 111)

Okay, okay, I’m not an amateur. Pulling myself together now.

So creativity is hard work and I’m all over the place tonight in conveying this. If you know a creative person, maybe you are one, you are no doubt aware of stories about a great project that looked like it would fly by because the energy and excitement was all there. Only it didn’t. It dragged on, ten times longer than planned, sometimes one hundred times longer. The project was over budget, understaffed, late to press, drives crashed, feelings hurt, frustrations vented, enemies made, supplies snapped in half and thrown out the studio windows … yes this happens to all of us. This is what hard work looks like to a creative, driven by passion and fueled by caffeine. A volatile condition, yet effective, usually.

“But what about inspiration?” you ask.

Inspiration is fleeting. It appears, it disappears. Some of it sticks, some of it slithers down your back and drops to the floor never to be heard from again. That is its nature. Accept it and move forward. When it strikes, be ready to record it with the understanding that its execution is never going to occur quickly and without pain.

Pain is the essence of hard work, ask your grandparents if you don’t believe me. Back breaking hard work was once a thing, it still is for some, and in the creative world, it’s more psychological than physical. It’s a daytime nightmare you cannot wake from. It’s also a daydream you can lose yourself in. Inspiration will do that to you, though, take you to another world. Which is great, because we all need great ideas, but we need grounding too – a hard work ethic.

Artists by nature are never satisfied. I heard that once while in art school and took it as gospel, so I continue to tell everyone that without citing studies. Not quite. It does, however, describe myself and every other creative I know. That level of dissatisfaction translates to self-editing, scrapping work and starting over, and other laborious steps backwards amidst a slow motion tumble forward. Hours, if not days or weeks, are lost to this tragic phase called revision. All of that lost time equates to lost creative labor that may never see the light outside of a garbage can. The creative, or artist, drags boulders up icy mountainsides to achieve the goal, spraining ankles and breaking bones along the way. And when he or she reaches the peak, spirit-breaking mental exhaustion gives way to bigger and better things.

And then inspiration kicks you in the face and you are so wired you can’t sit still. You type or paint or sculpt or whatever frenetically, making mistakes along the way without caring. Editing/revising/modifying doesn’t matter, love your first draft, the only draft, it’s perfect in every way! You keep going and going and going till you burn out. You crash harder than a thousand foot free fall on the ocean surface. But you have it, your first draft, your only draft, your gift of the gods enlightening the world through your voice. Don’t dare alter it, it is perfect in every way, that first draft. Except it’s not.

Hard work returns quickly with ferocity. The revision or whatever you do is critical if you are serious about creating not just good, but great art. It’s a vicious cycle, eventually finding a conclusion due to external forces like client deadlines or collecting a paycheck before your bills are due.

It’s chaos, it’s struggle, it’s enlightenment through mental anguish. When it’s all done and you gaze at your work, it will have separated itself from you. Unrecognizable, it’s an extension of who you were during those moments of creation and what you do. But it’s not you, it is its own holistic being. Your creation. You immediately forget the pain and embrace it. And then you deal with client revisions and approvals and finally collect a check sixty days later.

Creative work is rewarding on a level separate from anything monetary, but it’s not for the thinned-skin. As you might have determined by now after reading this offbeat meditation, there is no winner. Inspiration and  work ethic compliment each other, they improve each other’s capabilities and well-being. To be successful, you need both.

On writing aesthetics & process: happiness is not unendingness

I was challenged by my MFA writing mentor with a writing process and personal aesthetics  prompt: when am I happiest with my writing? And when am I unhappiest about it? Well, since I am going to address this on my blog, I need to make it relatable to you the reader. Otherwise, what’s the point of the blog? Talking to myself is not an option. I just assume keep a diary – I mean journal – under my pillow if that was the case. So, let’s start on a negative note.

I am least happy when I’ve written nothing.

I am the most unhappy when I’ve gone through the motions of the writing process and yielded garbage; the times when a part of a story might emerge that I look back and realize it’s been written somewhere sometime before. A text modeled after a cliché. Or a storyline I hate. Or, most despised of all, one with no ending in sight. I equate that to receiving injections of chlorine bleach under my skin. I’ve never had bleach injections, but I have a good imagination rooted in knowing its chemical properties and how it interacts with various materials.

Stories with no end in sight. The (clichéd) bane of my writing existence.  

This is perhaps my biggest challenge. I have written several almost-stories that don’t end. But they’re supposed to end so they can live the lives of mature stories as they were meant to. Perhaps this is why serial novels are so common, those authors must suffer the same affliction. More than likely capitalism is their driver, which is a good thing. Beats holding a day job while writing at night.

These unfortunate stories sit dormant in my “In Progress” folder on my MacBook waiting for their opportunity to shine. When I open the files and read through, I’ll make changes, write new parts, but they just fight closure. Perhaps that’s the point, they aren’t near completion and I’m being absolutely neurotic over a non-issue. Thing is, I’m not neurotic, I’m obsessive, and that throws a whole new complexity into the mix. It’s that obsessiveness that makes me so specific, so tuned-in to detail when I create. Both to my success and my detriment. Happiness and unhappiness.

Then fear rears its ugly face and taunts me.

In thinking about this issue I realized something, I have a fear of commitment in fiction, which is completely unlike me in the real world. I’m not sure where this comes from. There’s an overwhelming sense of foreboding when I consider allowing a character to die or experience some other incapacitating life-altering event, especially as the means to close a story or a major climax. Unless I despise my protagonist and enjoy the sight of a demon exacting the revenge of the protagonist’s victims – see my story “F is for Furcas: Lies Under Skin” in The Demonologia Biblica. Don’t get me wrong, I will do what’s right for the story, it takes me a while to accept the character’s fate to move forward. This fear of ending a story, however, can cripple the story when not careful, and a source of frustration for me.

I have a challenge to accept. And depending on my mood, I might. This is the root of the matter, I think. Amateur psychologists would have a fun time picking my brain about my creative process as I still haven’t figured it out in my nearly forty years of life. It’s a piece of me, creativity defines me. There is no other light to see me in – like a finance guy or a political guy or a construction guy – and that’s not necessarily by my choice. And I have an impossible time seeing myself in those roles in reality, but that completely changes when it comes to writing.

Bringing this full circle.

This little writing journey today, this blog entry you are reading right now, has been a fun one. The self-discovery and sharing hints of my usually secluded self lighten my brooding artist mood. In real life I tend to be private; in writing life, which is another reality for me, I am more open about myself. It’s this ability to be open that probably makes me happiest in my writing. It encourages confidence in my abilities, it inspires new ideas, new creative methods to add to that mysterious creative process that controls me. And sometimes, it gives me the ability to find my way home, to draw conclusions, to progress a plot line, and to end a story. To resolve my unhappiness with a never-ending story. And that is when I find myself thrilled about my writing, that momentary sense of fulfillment until the next story comes along.

Motivation is my vicious circle

Motivation has been on my mind lately, due in large part to reading Daniel Pink’s Drive, which I recommend everyone to check out. So I’m looking at how it relates to what I do as a writer and how I can write about its existence in a professional setting. And I continue to wrestle with it.

Then I had the brainstorm when fear motivates us. What could possibly be good about a negative motivator? Are there exceptions to the rules of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? As I felt the need for my bones to rip out of my skin in pondering this, an epiphany struck me – I’m fighting through motivational issues right now as I type these words. Feeling unmotivated to write about motivation. Not good.

Returning to my earlier question about fear motivating us in a positive way – sure, in that no one wants to be called a failure or deadbeat. In business, I see fear a lot, and I see it driving people to do things – albeit strange, often counterproductive things – but it is a powerful force that must be recognized.

For example, I’ve witnessed a manager’s decision to end a key communication project – one that was nearing completion – only to replace it with another mundane safe-yet-proven-ineffective initiative. Why? The manager voiced second thoughts that a higher-up wouldn’t respect the original initiative. And fear that too much information wasn’t good because it could cause employees to be hired out of the company should info somehow leak to the competition. A frustrating scenario to say the least. And I’m not talking about trade secrets leaking, just comprehensive information for the betterment of the employee body and improve efficiency of business as a whole.

I don’t mean to write in the abstract, but various non-disclosure agreements I’ve signed over the years put me in an awkward spot.

The reality is the employee body wants honest, transparent communication. They want access to information so they know who does what in which department at what location, especially in a global organization. Access to useful information eases work processes and reduces frustrations, which in turn increases efficiencies and productivity. Not a hard concept to fathom, unless fear of trying something new and different is a restraint. This is a common theme with vertically structured organizations that have been around a long time and are finding it difficult to survive in the current business climate of horizontal matrices and the flexibility of the up-and-coming Results Only Work Environments.

So, that is just one example of many that I can somewhat write about without risking litigation. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but far less than if I was to start a sentence with “let’s be honest….” My point – this is a topic I must explore in further detail on this blog within the realm of creativity vs. fear.

That preceding statement is the motivation I needed to realize to so I could write these words. It’s all a large infinity loop of jagged lines and hooks.

If you’ve learned something – anything – from this post, please tell me about it. It’s the details between the lines readers pick out that seem to resonate most, and I learn a lot from that in return.