Monday, March 24, 2008

Critiques---To Get or Not to Get, That is the Question

Allow me to start with a story, please.

As a writing major in undergraduate school I had two professors; I adored both of them--Matt and Milt. They both liked me, so no problem there. However, they disliked each other. Possible reasons for this are irrelevant to this post, so I'll spare you. After a while, I noticed a pattern with my writing and their critiques, and I decided to check it out.

At the time, poetry was my genre-of-choice, so I prepared the same 10 poems and gave each professor a copy. Since they really didn't talk to each other much, there was little chance of them figuring out my test.

I waited. I brewed. I chewed my fingernails. I walked in circles. I ate chocolate. Finally, the verdict came in and I received my critiques on the poems.

Matt liked five of the 10 poems. Milt liked the other five. Go figure.

But I learned a really important lesson early on in my writing career: a critique is valuable, but it isn't 'the final and only word' on the subject.

Although I'm addressing writing at present, the same goes for any feedback you might get---photography, dance, visual art, melodies, advertising copy, anything creative.

Creative output is subjective. The response to it is subjective. Every viewpoint is 'right'---which doesn't make yours 'wrong.'

The value of critique is to get feedback, not judgment. If Matt and Milt had both liked the same five poems---or even two of the same poems and trashed the rest---I'd have had some incredibly useful information. And two excellent poems.

When you have a number of people read (or look at) your work, and they agree on the same problem---then it's time to fix something. If they disagree, then take all the criticism back home, let it sit a few days, or at least hours, and approach your piece with a clear mind. See how the suggestions fit with your own feelings and vision of your work.

Don't change something just because another person tells you to---no matter who that person is. Not even your mother, though if yours is like mine, she's probably right!

YOU, and only you, are the final word on your creative work.

I belong to a number of critiquing groups. They are always helpful. But I don't make every change that everyone suggests. First of all, that's impossible, as people, like Matt and Milt, disagree. Secondly, because I don't agree with all of the suggestions. And, thirdly, I'm stubborn.

There's a scene in one of my murder mysteries that most of my readers dislike. It's in the middle of the book; I hadn't planned it; the characters did it even when I wanted them to stop; it's not pretty. But I'm not ready to take it out, mostly because it was so organic to the process of the story as it was being written. Will I let it kill a publishing deal? No way. When a potential publisher says, 'take the *&^in' scene out'---trust me, it will be in shreds on my office floor. But until then, it stays. Because I'm the writer---and I say so.

So, yes, go get critiqued. From people you respect. From people who do your same art and who are better than you are at it. From people who know your artform. From people with similar world-views and life-agendas.

Then take all the suggestions home. Put them aside. Take a bubble bath. Go dance. Have chocolate. And the next day, spread them all out across your desk and pick and choose the ones that make the best sense and feel right and make your work even more yours.


Monday, March 17, 2008

Courage and Creativity, Part II

First, Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Let’s all do a jig in celebration. Let’s all write/dance/paint with leprechauns!

In my blog on 2/18, I raised the question, paraphrased here, What is courageous about creativity? It took me a while, but here’s my personal answer.

Creativity is the act of bringing something new forth from the materials/emotions/situations in which we live. The form might well be almost infinite, in a number of realms: language, movement, shape, color, taste, even odor (there’s a word I can’t think of this moment for perfume-makers).

The feeling of safety comes, most often, from familiarity and trust (trust building, also, from familiarity and consistency).

As creative people, we choose to move from moments of “safety,” of being in the known, the already experienced, into the unknown. Like the “Fool” in the Tarot deck, carrying the form of our creativity in our hobo-sacks, we step off the ledge of safety into the unknown. The “Fool” often represents new beginnings in a Tarot reading. It is safe to say, then, that there’s at least a bit of foolishness in the creative act.

It takes a lot of courage to play the Fool.

It takes a lot of courage to step into the unknown.

It takes a lot of courage to risk failure---and a lot of courage to risk success.

Taking on an even larger edge of the discussion…In the Western world in which we live, we come from traditions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) in which the Deity has created the world, and the entire population of it. So ”creativity” is seen or experienced in a deep, learned level, as a God-act.

How much courage it takes to step into the realm of God-action!

Does that make us “gods”? No, I don’t think so. Does it make us more “godlike”? In a certain sense, yes.

I, personally, and absolutely, believe that creativity is a sacred act. No matter what we’re creating. (Yes, I believe there can be exceptions to this statement.)

And it takes a lot of courage to make sacred acts.

Sci-fi writers might understand this: creating whole new worlds, sometimes life-forms that didn’t exist until they put them on paper or screen. But they’re not the only ones. We all feel that sense of expanding, of our hearts opening as well as our minds as new ideas, shapes, motions, connections fill us as we create.

It takes courage to remain open to new possibilities. It takes even more courage to form those ideas and thoughts into a tangible art form---of any kind.

And so we risk---our selves, our sanity, our safety, our security---to walk the path of creativity. Without the risk, everything would stay exactly the same. No change. Stasis. Life requires change, growth. It’s part of the natural cycle. Those of us who are courageous enough to participate in the continuing creation of the world around us keep life happening. We are contributing to the future of life on the planet we live on just by being brave enough o create. We are courageous enough to keep the spark of change going, to keep the creation of the world moving forward.

Creativity is being courageous enough to open ourselves to possibility, to newness, to what-comes-next.

Even in its smallest forms of expression, creativity is a courageous act.

I’d love to read the thoughts of others on this (or other) topics about creativity. Please blog back!


Monday, March 10, 2008

Will the Thrill

(First---thank you to Kindra, a new friend/colleague who visited me at the Health Fair yesterday. I really appreciated her being there.)

A writer on one of the forums I belong to opened a discussion today about losing the excitement of his novel when he worked on the research for it. This made me think about other conversations I’ve had with clients, friends, and, yes, even myself, about losing enthusiasm when it comes to the small daily steps of accomplishing our goals.

Looking at the end result of my vision…say, seeing my mystery series on the shelf at Borders, always fills me with excitement. I can close my eyes and visualize just where it will be. I can smell the crispness of the first printing, hear the just-perceptible crack of the spine as I open it to scratch my pen across the front page with my very first autograph. Ahhhhh…that feels so good! So real! So inspiring! (In fact, I’m tempted to end this blog here and start editing the book!)

It’s an empowering visualization---and we all have them for our goals (at least those of us who have stopped to work on and set our goals).

But when it comes to getting those big visions down to “It’s Monday morning and today I have to read a chapter in this really dry book on Victorian etiquette in rural Britain and I don’t want to,” we wonder where all that excitement went.

Sometimes the small, daily steps to the big, overall goal are left-brain, while the excitement and the visualization of the goal are right-brain. We get to Monday…or Tuesday…and need to accomplish the left-brain activity to achieve the right-brain exciting vision. And we’re totally at a lack for motivation, excitement, energy, empowerment…you name it. We want another cup of coffee. We suddenly remember the bathroom needs cleaning. There’s one more dust bunny behind the couch.

What went wrong?

What went wrong is that we left our right brain relishing in the exciting visualization and handed all the rest of getting-there to the left brain. The left brain doesn’t hold emotions. The left brain can’t get excited, even if it wants to.

The solution: get the right brain involved in the left-brain daily to-dos.

How? Connect back to your original visualization. Feel the excitement of success at the goal again! Refresh yourself with all the sensory connections you originally felt when choosing the goal.

Then use that excitement to empower the left brain to accomplish all those daily to-dos that will get you to the goal your right brain chose originally.

The hardest part of this process is to remember to do it. After a while, if you practice it regularly, reconnecting to that right-brain excitement will come naturally.

And the everyday to-do list will look like a page of check-marks!

Now…I’m off to edit a murder story! How about you?


Monday, March 3, 2008

Celebrations and Goal Attainment

Health Fair
What are you doing Sunday, March 9, from 1-4 pm? (remember to change your clocks!) Stop by to say hello me at the Health Fair at the Jewish Community Center (off Hwy. 70S near the 70/100 split)---this is a big one and really will happen (barring tornado, tsunami, ice storm, or the landing of aliens from another galaxy). I’ll be handing out literature, calendars, and offering FREE seminars to three lucky raffle winners! Come on by and enter!
Map for JCC:

Celebrations and Goal-Attainment
This week---Thursday, March 6---I celebrate my half birthday!

A half birthday? What’s that?

Years ago I noticed that the second half of my year was always better than the first half (it may have something to do with the beginning of spring, increased sunlight, crocuses and tulips in bloom), so I decided, hey, it’s my birthday---I can celebrate it however I want---in halves, quarters, whatever! And, there’s no law against it!

Celebration is a very important part of a healthy life. The world throws us enough muck along the way that we need to balance it out through celebrating. Our culture is particularly noncreative in celebrations: We have some fun fireworks on July 4, great decorations and store sales around Christmastime, some late-night revelries on New Year’s Eve, green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, parades on Memorial Day (if you’re lucky) and then you get to celebrate your birthday and anniversary. There are the one-time celebrations, also, such as graduation or a wedding. If you’re Jewish you get a Bar- or Bat-mitzvah, and Catholics have First Communions. Other than those paltry few, there’s not a whole lot of partying goin’ round.

What’s most important about celebrations is that they serve as acknowledgements, life markers. We’ve made it through another year of life…or marriage. We deserve an award! Look, we finally got through the grind of school! We’ve made it! We’ve reached some particular goal!

So many of us set our goals and then plod on and on toward them. We rarely stop to see how far we’ve come compared to where we were before. Maybe we’re afraid that the hobgoblins of the past…the anchors and cement-block slippers and bogeymen fears will rear their ugly heads and get in our way again. Maybe we’re just too busy moving forward to take a moment to look back.

I think the first step in setting and attaining goals is to take a good, long look at where we’ve already been---and then to stop and celebrate how far we’ve already come! To acknowledge ourselves for making it through all the trials and tribulations and stresses and obstacles we’ve encountered. And, most important, to congratulate ourselves for getting to today!

After all, how can you set a map to your future and plan the direction to take if you don’t know where you’re starting?

So take a few moments and lift the mirror. Take a long look at the road behind you. Pat yourself on the back! Shake your own hand! Have a chocolate bon-bon! Light a candle and make a wish! Do something that is celebratory to acknowledge your success in getting to today!

Just like in Alice-in-Wonderland---celebrate your Un-Birthday!!

Step number two: Plan some celebrations on the way to your goals. When I get my first chapter written, I’m going to hold a tea party! When I reach five new clients, I’ll take myself to dinner! When I get my business loan, I’ll buy that beautiful desk lamp!

And for the ‘little’ steps, especially the hard ones---find a mini-celebration for yourself. Pat yourself on the head (when no one’s looking), shake your own hand, do a Happy Dance around your desk…whatever works for you.

These are all moments of self-acknowledgement, of positive feedback. Positive feedback is the single most motivating and inspirational force I know (well, second…the possibility of meeting Robert Redford is the first most motivating and inspirational force I know, personally).

And, by all means---celebrate your half-birthday!

What sorts of celebrations, large or small, do you do? What provides positive feedback that motivates and inspires you in continuing toward your goals? Please feel free to share your thoughts here!