Banksy, my quiet hero

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised Source: independent.co.uk

I already knew Banksy’s arrest was a hoax by the time The Independent published the story, but I’m happy to see an artist receive on-going international attention, even if it was due to the publication of a completely false news report.

The Independent: Banksy arrest hoax: Internet duped by fake report claiming that the street artist’s identity has been revealed

Banksy has struck a nerve in the global collective consciousness and I love it. I almost as equally enjoy laughing at the poorly misinformed National Report, which seems to dig for dirt on anyone who doesn’t coalesce with their political agenda while not vetting the source material. They reported on the arrest hoax as if it was a true event, detailing his alleged crimes of counterfeiting and vandalism. The undertones of the author’s excitement exuded from each account of how bad a guy Banksy is.

This isn’t nearly a one-time thing with National Report, for those of you not familiar with the agenda-driven publication, wrap your head around this headline from October 8, 2014: “Potential Ebola Outbreak Prompts Martial Law.” The president did not declare martial law. It never happened. There is no ebola outbreak in the US. In fact, it was announced yesterday that several dozen people were just removed from the ebola watch list in Dallas. Read this USA Today article for more about the good news.

It’s saddening to think our culture has produced the need for fake journalism that has only one purpose: propaganda. Rile up the base, persuade new readers to hop on the ideological bus ride into the abyss! When authentic information can’t sell an audience, the subject must not be worth selling. The intermingling of fake news with the real news is exhausting. We’ve reached a point in our culture that the audience wants only the correct news and and agreeable news, not necessarily the factual authentic news. It’s tough to determine what’s even real anymore in our jaded and skeptical society, nor do we have the time to sort out fact versus fabrication and hyperbole. You can thank 24-hour cable infotainment news networks where negative news and politically-biased news means higher ratings, increased advertising revenue, and higher stock yields.

I crave authenticity now more than ever and I always find myself turning to the creative world. There is an honesty that cannot be disputed in creative works; whether you agree with its message is your individual right. For me, Banksy’s work is the epitome of art in that it is authentic, it challenges popular opinion, questions the news media, provokes thought, evokes visceral responses, rises above expectations, and continuously catches the audience off guard.

Does a news source exist out there that meets some of my definitions of art? I have some ideas on who might, but I don’t know anymore. I don’t usually know who or what to trust. Absorbing information from one source is a risk; from several sources a comprehensive story develops filled with self-conflicting statements. I don’t have the time or resources to fact check every item of news I read, so I question everything and challenge popular opinion every day. Facts and authenticity are king and queen, and they are Banksy’s work.

Creatives using Adderall and other performance enhancers – what’s the deal?

Hey writers and other creatives – are any of you aware of this new trend of taking Adderall to be better at your disciplines? Take a look at this article, In search of perfection, young adults turn to Adderall at work” published December 3, 2013 on Al Jazeera America.

Besides the insane idea of using a drug dependency to maintain a leading edge on the competition, what got me was that the interviewed writer claims her work is better as a result of taking Adderall to stay awake all night writing her article. It seems to help her connect to her work. What is her writing baseline otherwise – mediocre work? How does she truly know the work is even better with the drug than without it? Fooling herself with this mythology is more than likely. What gets me, why does she even have a high pressure job writing for the NY Times?

This story, or this epidemic rather, makes me crazy. When I need to perform at a high level, whether in writing, designing, website creation, or whatever else I do, I just put myself in that mindset and do it. Sure, extra caffeine helps stave off the eventual weariness, but I don’t look to performance enhancers to do better at what I already do best.

For the sake of my argument, maybe a bit self-centered on my part, not to intentionally show off, yet it would seem I am, I have been knocking out some end of semester grueling grad school writing while heavily medicated. I had cervical spinal surgery almost two weeks ago, complete with a  disc replacement and decompression of my alarmingly compressed spinal cord. The condition was maybe a month or two shy of becoming an emergency situation. I was very lucky to have this situation discovered while checking for another unrelated neurological condition condition just a month ago. Ah, the fun of growing older and degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis setting in to my vertebrae. My point is, I am still performing at my top level, albeit at a slower than normal pace as I fight through the overwhelming need to sleep while I heal, the fuzziness of my thought process throughout most of the day, and the horrendous effects it all has on my typing abilities. But I work through it. And I own it, every bit of it. No excuses.

I know, I’m on a soap box here, and stepping off it now. But I wonder, I am in some way different than others not finding a need to depend on Adderall or other performance enhancers to do my job well, even under conditions of my current ailment?

I’d love get all of your takes on this. I know a lot of you who visit this blog are creatives in varying fashions – several of you are my friends, so I’m on to you 😉  – and have probably encountered in some shape or form people using Adderall or whatever else to get through heavy loads of college work or big job related projects. I’m interested in learning more about this apparent epidemic from first-hand accounts. Don’t leave me hanging, that would be cruel.

On that note, happy holidays as I nod off now. 

Article referenced: “In search of perfection, young adults turn to Adderall at work,” Al Jazeera America, December 3, 2013.

Don’t overthink, just write

blah blah blah In my usual efforts to avoid the work I really need to do – write my book – I find myself reading all sorts of articles related to writing. All offering positive advice with the best intentions appearing on blogs, and educational and professional writing sites. I like to see what’s out there hoping I might learn something new. And I’ve come to a conclusion: there are a lot of overthinkers out there offering superfluous advice to aspiring writers. In turn, these nascent writers are online seeking quick solutions to their questions and hurdles allowing them to become passive about their art. Not good.

Overthinker on opposite gender writing.

One overthinker’s piece snagged me with its barbed hook; I needed to read it. His article was built around the idea that male writers need to be in touch with and comprehend feminism in order to write female characters. But it has to be right kind of feminism, otherwise it means some entirely different vague thing that was never clearly described.

Look, I’m paraphrasing here, and I’m intentionally not linking the article in question as I’m not looking for a fight. There are hundreds more like it, if you don’t believe me I challenge you to see this Google search. This is a genuine link to Google and will not show anything bad. It’s safe for work, it’s even safe for preschool. I promise.

The article was overwrought with justifications for the apparent complexity of the female character issue, playing off the idea that male writers just can’t write female characters. Rather, they write about their ideals of what women should be or their disdain for women. Essentially creating archetypes, not characters, or more likely stereotypes. Male writers spend all of their time describing male characters by carefully not making them female because they can’t overtly give male and female characters certain anatomical parts to define their genders. And it went on and on and on. I wondered if Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates would agree with this guy’s perspective.

I stopped halfway. My brain produced an agonizing scream as it processed this convoluted mess. I’ve underestimated its vocalization capabilities all these years. It was brutal. I hope it never happens again. Ever.

So, here’s the deal, my advice to you.

Ignore that overthought stuff, it’s not helping you. If you’re male and you need to write a female character – do it. Don’t overthink it, don’t make assumptions, just write what feels right. Write what you know, what you don’t know, what makes sense for the story, what makes it a great story. Reality will reveal itself. The female character will come across just as authentic as your male character. It doesn’t hurt to make sure one of your readers is female. There are those little societal gender cues that are easy to miss. For example, you’ll rarely ever hear a woman say, “I gotta go take a piss.”

This advice is multidisciplinary and cross-functional. And universal!

No subject escapes the death grip of overthinking. Overthinkers are another manifestation of what we know as red tape in government and multiple layers of bureaucratic management in a corporation. I’m still searching for the source of these unnecessary convolutions, my current theory is that they are rooted in human nature. The fact that everyone feels a need to have control, to have a say in how things are done. To be armchair philosophers and basement dwelling anthropologists exploring the human condition with nothing more than the tool that gives you access to all things, the Internet. Laziness combined with ego. A dreadful combination.

I mock and joke. But in reality, ninety-eight percent* of the time I ignore that stuff when I write. And so should you.

Don’t overthink, just write.

* That other two percent is used for locating source material for blog entries like this. Time well spent.

Surviving the increased workload epidemic

While at work some time ago you lost your raison d’être. You feel beaten down, uninspired … splintered and scattered and torn. Your job is no longer the job you were hired for, it’s an amalgamation of three other jobs, none of which you have professional experience in.

“Where did everyone go,” you wonder, looking around the once densely populated office space at several desks now used for temporary storage of file boxes and empty binders. “Thats right – one position was eliminated and you now handle it, another was offered an early retirement package to quickly reduce the headcount, and the last person left for a new job where she was offered a higher level position. “No chance of growing here,” she told you on her way to the exit interview, “get out as soon as you can!”

This pattern appears throughout the mid-sized company, each department dwindling as the CEO talks about the need to cut costs and scale-down budgets at town hall meetings. “Why did this happen?” you want to ask when the CEO opens to room for questions, but you don’t out of fear of retaliation. No one asks any questions. The CEO concludes the meeting after a minute of uncomfortable silence. On the way out you whisper to your friend from demand planning, “why am I doing all this work alone? Doesn’t he see what he’s doing?”

Finding dollars to save here and there, it looks great when summed up on a spreadsheet. Why pay multiple salaries when one person can carry all of the weight? Eliminate a few seemingly unnecessary responsibilities, like most of the internal communication role and half of the web team responsible for social media and e-commerce. “Those web things practically run themselves,” proclaimed the EVP of Operations. He doesn’t appear to be carrying additional weight when he leaves early each afternoon the weather is nice to play nine holes.

It’s really happening.

Go back to the opening paragraph, those descriptive words following that fancy French phrase that means reason for existence. This is an existential crisis for any employee enduring a company experiencing downsizing and reorganization. It’s a frustrating situation to be in, feeling tied down, unable to escape because the job market is ultra-competitive with others in your same circumstance also looking for a way out. Meanwhile, the workload is so overbearing your nights and weekends are rarely your own time.

When you question your multiplying position, consider: has your salary multiplied to compensate for the extra workload and additional responsibilities? Maybe a 1.75% merit increase for good behavior, not enough to cancel out the spike in next year’s healthcare cost. Has your title changed and position elevated to reflect the new work earning you a place at the decision-making table giving credence to the vast business knowledge you had to acquire to handle these jobs? Are you respected any more than you were when first hired?

From the employee’s perspective, this is an impossible situation to perpetuate any longer than you must. I’ve been through this, as well as several other good people I’ve known, some bearing the weight while others escaping at first chance. It kills morale; the corporate culture becomes heavily pessimistic and resentful. When staff is under-performing and feeling negative, and turn-over is high, where do you think the company is headed?

The right way to handle this.

I’m now addressing those with the decision-making power: don’t set this downward spiral in motion. Fight it at every step in your senior leadership and steering committee meetings. The answer to declining sales is rarely found by eliminating internal resources, it is found by examining the marketplace and reassessing your products.

Are you truly producing what people want? Or are your products a shallow reflection of what the marketplace demands? What new innovations are you introducing? Cutting supply chain and manufacturing costs by removing features your customers have grown to appreciate and expect won’t solve anything either. If anything, it will turn your customers off breaking their loyalty. Instead of producing a pale imitation of Apple’s latest iPhone, create a new cutting edge device that will blow it away.

I know it’s not as a simple as that. Money needs to be invested on research and technological development for starters, it’s a huge process. I get it. But it’s worthwhile in the end when your new product outsells the competition in a landslide if you’re willing to make the investment.

The answer lies in proactive creativity and innovation.

The answer is not in eliminating your staff and resources, and overburdening those who remain. A proactive creative approach to solving the business problems at-hand will permeate the business culture. Offering the staff the ability to participate in improving the business appeals to their intrinsic needs to be a part of something bigger, to do good. An employee body working together is far stronger than a few at the top making the decisions and putting the burden on those below.

Some advice for everyone stuck in an overburdened situation:

  1. Find it in yourself to remain optimistic. You can’t affect positive change feeling angry and resentful, even if you are in the right.
  2. Look for every opportunity no matter how small to contribute toward a better solution. Make recommendations to leaders who will listen.
  3. Influence your peers with optimism, encourage them to work with you toward improving the environment.

This is a complex matter that requires action on several fronts to resolve. You can only do your best within the confines of your role. Therefore, start with yourself, improve what you can around you, and encourage it to spread. If you find yourself leaving for a new opportunity, don’t lose the positive focus.

On writing: what good comes from fiction?

Since the early 1990s, I have occasionally stumbled across the notion that reading fiction is a waste of time. I remember seeing a hair metal rocker in an MTV interview back then proclaiming this frivolous statement. You would think this concept was profound by the attention it was given during the “news” segment. I can’t even recall who the musician was, guess it wasn’t all that big a deal.

More recently, however, Noel Gallagher of Oasis echoed a similar time-wasting sentiment in an interview for GQ’s Icon of the Year. You can see an article about this in The Guardian here. Is it trendy for some celebrities to make this unnecessarily stupid statement? I have yet to see a legitimate reason to defend this point. At best, it promotes his pompous arrogance. It begs the question why GQ deemed Gallagher worthy of such a prestigious title; he’s certainly on track to become a Nobel Laureate.

I understand some people prefer reading nonfiction over fiction just as others prefer the inverse – I get that. I don’t argue personal preference and I don’t pass judgment either way. I enjoy reading both and writing both. So be it. But the public proclamation of fiction as a waste of time sucks the marrow from my bones as a giant mosquito would if given the opportunity. It’s far more than just stating a personal preference when delivered to a mass media outlet.

For those who don’t see the point of fiction, I offer you these groundbreaking thoughts. And yes, they are opinions, rooted in observations, professional experience, and most importantly, common knowledge. Only a narcissist would be oblivious.

Fiction provides escape. 

For some it’s a journey into another world. For others, it’s the opportunity to live out a fantasy while ignoring the day’s real life stress. There’s no magic here, it should be obvious even to the most cynical bastard.

Fiction is ubiquitous.

I wonder if the people claiming fiction is a waste enjoy TV dramas, art galleries, blockbuster movies, or even stand-up comedy. Even when based on facts there are elements of fiction throughout these media. How many Civil War documentaries feature audio clips of Abraham Lincoln’s words of wisdom? Voiced by actors, of course. As for the gaps between recorded events, writers have to surmise what probably had occurred to connect the dots – fiction based on fact.

 Fiction excites the mind. 

An amazing side affect of reading fiction is that it inspires. It can invoke creativity. Especially for children. Concepts in science fiction haves opened the way to real life inventiveness, bringing to the world submarines and helicopters. Check out this Smithsonian.com article if you don’t believe me. Star Trek fans relish in this fact considering the number of inventions the original TV show inspired.

Fiction is the livelihood for many people.

Whether we are talking about novelists, publishers, or filmmakers, fiction is at the root of many Americans’ livelihood. It’s an industry no less legitimate than music.

Fiction is this or that….

Anyone can spend a few minutes on this topic and come up with a list. My point is this: don’t berate fiction because it’s not your cup of tea, even if your cup of tea contains sulfuric acid and bleach. No one enjoys hearing of their life’s passion proclaimed a waste of time. Not even formerly celebrated musicians.