Get Back: Study in the Creative Process : Pt 2

Early Beatles. United Press International, photographer unknown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

read part 1

Most of the film is the four Beatles facing each other with their instruments. It was a constant feedback loop, in real-time. When Paul doesn’t like how Ringo fills a gap, he says so, and the change is immediate. Same with the words; John or Paul pull Mal (their longtime road manager) over and they constantly re-work the lyrics. Contrast this with how I have always experienced feedback. At work, feedback is given (on code, on projects, on presentations) after a submission; the opposite of real-time. Same with writing; I struggle to find avenues for real, helpful feedback, and when I do, it is weeks or months after its creation. I wonder if workshops or retreats are the natural equivalent… part of the experience is writing something and presenting it the same day. Curious about how tightening that loop effects the work. Also, how much of the magic here is because of their physical proximity? Hard to envision this level of collaboration and feedback, and camaraderie happening over Zoom.

If the Beatles weren’t working on new songs, they filled time by playing covers. I can’t find any references to support this, but assumedly most of the covers were songs they played in Hamburg. One of them would rip into a tune and the other three would follow. It looks like they’re just having fun or blowing off steam, but it’s practice disguised as play. The musicianship of the band is stunning, honed from literally years of playing as a bar band in Hamburg as teens. See the 10,000 hour rule. And they never (at least not as edited) warm up with scales or anything else. They use these songs to unwind and practice playing as a band.

As usual, I’m looking for takeaways. The biggest is the importance of collaborators and peers to give honest and timely feedback. Another is to embrace obstacles, rather than looking at them as blockers. Should my inability to get past traditional gatekeepers truly stop me from publishing my work? Or do I need to figure out ways to get around this restriction. Interesting. And maybe the biggest takeaway is the obvious and incredible magic of tea and marmalade to the creative process.

Get Back: Study in the Creative Process

Unrelated Beatles Book

I’ve watched the Beatles documentary “Get Back” twice since they released it in November 2021. The first time was as an awe-struck fan. The Beatles were long disbanded by the time I was born, so to see them as young men, collaborating on iconic songs was amazing. Watching Paul McCartney come up with the riff for Get Back in two minutes blew my mind. On the second watching, I could pick up on some elements that made their process worth studying.

Random observations:

  • They are all incredible musicians, jumping between instruments, picking up riffs and chords on the fly. I don’t think Paul plays a wrong note in six hours.
  • The technology used to make the film was almost invisible; it was only noticeable when they overlaid conversation over scenes where the talking didn’t match.
  • George Martin, so important on the earlier records, seems useless.
  • Outsiders influenced George Harrison (Clapton, The Band, etc.) while John Lennon and McCartney were more self-contained and unconcerned about other bands. They pull from rock and roll songs from their youth.
  • The editing was fantastic until the concert; Peter Jackson, the director, stuck with how the original film showed the concert, interspersed with crowd reactions. Just show the Beatles playing, please. Leave the crowd’s reaction for the closing credits.

One of the jarring items from the documentary was how many obstacles the group had to overcome. The original space had terrible acoustics. When they moved to Apple studios, the space wasn’t ready. The technology (4-tracks, etc.) was dated and not ready for them when they arrived. They had a tight deadline, because of a movie Ringo Starr was scheduled to shoot and another engagement Glyn Johns the producer had (a study in priorities and perspective… Ringo’s movie was lost to time and who is this other band Glyn needs to get to over the Beatles). And the entire goal of the session and the original documentary were hazy. The big takeaway here, though, is these issues didn’t hinder the process. If they had a pristine, perfect space, the best technology and months and months of open time… do these songs come out the same way? Not a chance. It’s the guardrails that drive so much creativity. I remember when I was a teenager listening to Howard Stern. He had Siskel and Ebert on the show and they begged him to make a documentary of the show. During their discussion, Howard complained he couldn’t do the show he wanted, and both Siskel and Ebert told him it was the blockers, the restrictions imposed by the FCC and the local radio stations that made the process amazing. The same holds true here.

Another obstacle was the lack of leadership. Their old manager, Mr. Brian Epstein, had passed away, and they didn’t have a replacement. Paul steps up and fills this void; he’s the one pushing the work agenda and the most aggressive with ideas for songs. But no one elected him or agreed he was their leader. He just stepped up. Most Beatles histories cite John as the leader and inspiration of the earlier albums, with Paul taking on this role in the later work. This really caught my attention; as someone who works in a traditional workplace with a defined hierarchy, it’s interesting to watch “work” happen without a defined leader. Yes, this causes friction, especially with George leaving the band for a few days, but they still get their work done.

read part 2

A Second Look: The War of Art – Part 2

My copy
My copy of the War of Art

read Part 1

The last part of The War of Art that stood out on this read was Pressfield’s discussion on the Ego and the Self. Terms I’ve heard a million times but never considered. He describes the Ego as what we think of when we say “I”, the conscious, day-to-day brain. The Self is a greater entity that includes the Ego but also the unconscious, dreams, the collective.

I’m uncomfortable with this thread; I’ve never delved into any Jungian theory. But, and I’m sure this was the intention, if one considers the role of the artist is to listen and accept work from the universe, then only knowing and operating on the Ego isn’t enough. The Self is where the good stuff lives.

The following put this into sharp focus. “Dreams come from the Self. Ideas come from the Self. When we meditate, we access the Self. When we fast, when we pray, when we go on a vision quest, it’s the Self we’re seeking.” I meditate and dream, but did I know why? Is this why creators like Neil Gaiman and his endless production of new and wonderful stories, can tap new ideas so consistently? My big takeaway is to concentrate more on this idea of the Self and how to access it more regularly.

My re-read of The War of Art was incredibly useful. It reaffirmed so many of the practices I already put into place… during a period where I’ve been questioning them. I actually listened to the last part of the book and to the synergies Pressfield describes. The professional artist is open to the world and, through the consistent habits and approaches, can listen and absorb and act as a vessel… by having the requisite skills, honed by the honest feedback of others and by accessing the Self.

A Second Look: The War of Art

The Grand Tetons

The first book in the Second Look (!) series is The War or Art, by Steven Pressfield. I initially read this in late 2017, a couple of years before I actually set an intention to write. It is part of the canon recommended by people that pursued their own creative, non-standard paths, like Ferris, Holiday, Roll, etc. The War of Art is also part of the set of recommended books for new writers, alongside Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way and Stephen King’s On Writing.

I didn’t have a practice or a goal or the tens of thousands of words behind me during my first read. Many of the ideas and habits in this book made their way into my daily routine and how I approach writing. Do work every day. Treat the work seriously. Don’t worry if the work is terrible. Don’t self-edit while creating. Master technique. Finish what you start. I don’t think I gained them straight from the text; this advice went mainstream and if oft repeated. But The War of Art is the source text. And his main thesis is Resistance and its many forms; naming and describing Resistance is the core of the book.

The ideas that stood out in the second read were more subtle. The first is around feedback. Specifically (Pressfield contrasts how amateurs and professionals differ), the amateur does not expose themself to real world feedback. “Nothing is as empowering as real-world validation, even if it’s for failure.” (Pressfield, p. 71). How many times, on this website, have I bemoaned the lack of feedback and criticism for my writing? This part, or lack of part, of my writing is amateur. I need to get my writing out there and elicit more feedback, both from editors/gatekeepers (more than just “Thanks for submitting, your piece isn’t what we’re looking for right now,” etc.) and regular readers. I used to rely on Scibophile for feedback, but it was inconsistent and required so much peer review I had to abandon the platform. Posting more work here will get readers, but not the desired feedback and criticism. Reading this again served as a glorious reminder.

The War of Art has three sections, Defining Resistance, Combating Resistance, and Beyond Resistance, The Higher Realm. On my first read, I just skimmed the last part.
“The next few chapters are going to be about the invisible psychic forces that support and sustain us in our journey toward ourselves. I plan on using terms like muses and angels. Does that make you uncomfortable?” (Pressfield, 106) Yes! At least it did the first time. So I missed Pressfield’s idea that stories and characters and stories are out there, in the ether… or with the angels and muses. I’m not a spiritual or mystical person, but this grabbed me. It is reassuring and hopeful that the primary job of an artist is to open themselves to the world. Not to rely on voodoo for inspiration, but sit every day, get yourself in a consistent habit of preparing and opening up, and a professional will tap into that energy, muse, whatever. And, if they have done the work on their craft, they can take whatever they receive and turn it into art. “…it’s as though the Fifth Symphony existed already in that higher sphere, before Beethoven sat down and played dah-dah-dah-DUM. The catch was this: The work existed only as potential—without a body, so to speak. It wasn’t music yet. You couldn’t play it. You couldn’t hear it…It needed a corporeal being, a human, an artist… to bring it into being on this material plane. So the Muse whispered in Beethoven’s ear.” (Pressfield, p 117)

(part 2 coming soon)

A Second Look: New Series

Ye Olde Shelves

When I finish a book, I cross it off the list and put it on the shelf. Maybe I’ll take notes on non-fiction books with actionable content. I’ve noticed readers and authors I admire re-read both fiction and non-fiction books.

I’ve re-read selected books, like most of the titles in my first series, Books that Changed My Life. I read the Pragmatic Programmer, The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, Meditations many times. But not as a conscious practice.

For this series, I will re-visit interesting books from my shelves. These won’t be book reviews; in-depth reviews of these books are everywhere. I’ll focus on what hits differently and why.

Gentleman Writer

Kitchen bookshelf from a summer cabin.

I’m not a professional writer. To date, I’ve made less than $100 dollars from my work. While I have a consistent practice, I spend less than 1 hour a day writing, editing or submitting stories. Conversely, I spend 8-10 hours a day working my actual profession.

When I started in technology in the late 1990s, I knew nothing about the craft of writing code, the private workplace (my first job was as a health inspector for a local NJ government), or the industry. I spent hours a day hammering away at code and learning the technology. I read at least 1-2 tech books a month, subscribed to multiple industry magazines (actual paper magazines), free conferences and talked shop with my coworkers. I immersed myself in the profession.

I haven’t done the same for writing. My focus has been on the actual craft… the most important part, of course. But I’ve ignored entire swaths of the process. How and why certain pieces and authors get published. How the industry works. What is the current field of play for publishing in magazines, publishing a book via traditional means, or publishing independently?

Hugh Howey, one of my mentors in writing, speaks to this directly.

One of my stated goals is to have more people read my work. But I don’t understand the criteria and motivations of the traditional gatekeepers (editors, publishers, agents). And I haven’t done the work to grok how independent publishing works or promoted this website. Nor created a writing network, like my coworkers when I started in technology.

Logically, I know I need to expand my knowledge and experience of the industry. I wanted to find my authentic voice and have more published work before focusing on the business of writing (see chicken and egg). Another part wants to treat writing as a serious hobby, much the same way I used to treat triathlons. The concept of a “Gentleman Writer”, in the same vein as the Gentleman Farmer, is lodged in my head. Finally, I use it as an excuse… if I don’t understand what readers and publishers and the industry wants and how they work, I’ll just write what I want, and maybe an audience will magically appear.

Books That Have Changed Your Life: Wool

Soccer Sunset
Soccer Sunset

Back to fiction… I remember hearing about Wool when it launched; it was self-published on Amazon in installments. I read a few of the early installments but didn’t complete the online series or buy the book. Wool got so popular, Howey turned it into a best-selling novel. A year before I started writing, something motivated me to find and read Wool… I think I was on a post-apocalyptic jag.

I enjoyed the story and characters. Most importantly, the writing seemed like… something I could do. The prose wasn’t Hemingway or Murukami or Joyce. I later realized Howey did subtle things I didn’t notice at first, such as uniform chapters, classical character arcs, deep explorations of themes, and political opinion. I used to warm up my writing sessions by copying blocks of his writing… the mundane stuff, like how an author jumps between memories and dialogue, or changes scenes. Wool changed my life because it gave me the confidence to write.

Reality Check

Side of Barn

In earlier posts, I’ve written about a wish to go away somewhere to write. Spending thirty to sixty minutes each morning on writing is helpful, but doesn’t allow the flow and focus I think could happen if I went on a retreat. My vision is pretty typical; spending two weeks in a remote cabin in the woods, with only pads, a laptop/iPad with no Internet, a few classic books for inspiration. And lots of hiking trails and contemplative fires. Even writing this makes me yearn for this mythical cabin.

This vision is powerful and I’ve carried it around for as long as I’ve been scribbling words on the page. And that made this article stunning. It’s a letter to an advice column in Outside magazine about a woman who basically is doing what I described; living in a cabin in remote Montana by herself with only nature, hiking trails, and her writing. Perfect, right? Except she’s miserable and can’t write and is lonely and has writer’s block. Her problems got worse instead of better.

I froze after reading this article. Could it be my ideal situation… isn’t so ideal? There are differences; she just ended a long-term relationship, references unresolved trauma and is trying to write about herself and nature. I don’t have any of those conditions, but the story (and the advice) still hit home; wherever you go, you will find yourself there. What you carry into solitude is more important than the solitude itself.

This tale hasn’t stopped me from wanting a few days or weeks to dedicate to writing. I wonder how much of her issue is the indeterminate duration and extreme isolation; I’d work in human interaction every day. It’s not the reflection on nature I’m seeking; it’s the absence of distraction.

The given advice is fantastic, essentially a version of the Five Why’s. It’s a great framework to use when trying to understand where you are and where you’re going. And his advice on writing it spot on:

“I think that a lot of writer’s block comes from trying to write something you don’t really mean. Fiction, memoir, whatever—you have to feel it. You have to care. The work needs to have stakes for you. That’s how you get electricity on the page; your readers feel the risks you’re taking. Readers are smart. They sense, even when they don’t understand. Even when they don’t know. And there are few things more dull on the page than a performance.”

I know I’ve struggled to incorporate other’s opinions on what makes a good story and the levels of introspection and examination…. that’s not for me. When I tried to write like that, there was no “electricity” on the page. I tried to be someone I wasn’t.

Unexpected Inspiration

Catskills Path

I’ve welcomed fresh energy from unlikely sources. I’m back to waking up and looking forward to my morning writing sessions.

The first source was Home on Apple+. A show about unique houses, the people who designed, built and live in them. The first one I watched was “Soot House” featuring a cabin in the woods for a small family. Their cabin was everything I’ve ever wanted in a space; spare, functional, minimalist. The actual space, though, isn’t the part that caught my imagination…it’s the stories of real people building something for them, combined with the artistic bend of the series. Something about plans, architecture, using different materials, being out in secluded woods, got me excited. Even the other houses I’ve watched were inspiring, especially the one in Austin built on a toxic industrial site. I literally had trouble sleeping that night; my mind was racing and I just couldn’t stop the flood of ideas and images running through my head. I’ve always been a sucker for the stereotypical architect archetype… Dieter Rams in a spare office talking industrial design, young architects in stations with minimalist desks, hand-drawn designs, etc.

Letting go of Crystal Grove also helped. I didn’t realize how much it hung over my head and stopped me from moving forward. A few weeks after trunking CG, ideas flowed. Writing wasn’t a burden and the world just seemed brighter, lighter.

Finally, the end-of-year processes for my actual job has inspired. Usually, the end of the year means painful reviews, budget denials, stress around submitting plans. We’re making big changes (for our small group) next year, with new projects, added responsibilities, lots of hiring. My team and I have to lift our heads out of the weeds and look into the distance, forcing the aperture by which I look at the world to widen.

These inspirations have common themes; planning, design, space for thinking. I used to spend more time designing when I actively wrote software; re-introducing it to different aspects of my life feels great. Less obvious themes include white space, use of form and space – I sense a symmetry between an architect designing a space optimized for warmth and efficiency, or an industrial designer designing items to do one task, with writing and creating. White space, design, the craft of using words to create a place, a feeling, an emotion. Another aspect of these inspirations is people designing and getting what they want, as opposed to accepting something else. Something about wanting a space of their own, designing and building it just makes me happy.

Clawing Out of the Trough

In my last post, I whined about a lack of enthusiasm. How can I claw out of this ebb? Doing the same things in the same way and hoping for a different outcome won’t work. I need to change.

I’ve described my daily routine before, and am very protective of my morning ritual. Wake, morning pages, meditate and then a minimum of 500 words. I need to preserve large parts of this routine, but re-examine the writing part. Some days (like… today!) I have a backlog of non prose-writing tasks; working though plot ideas and then outlining Unfair Advantage 2. Trying to find time in my busy workday for these activities doesn’t work… I’ve found I can carve out a few minutes for light editing, but not any deep, creative thinking. One of the pleasant parts of writing in the morning is my focus and creativity are at their peak. I need to de-emphasize “words on the page” and transfer the energy to working on other elements of writing.

In an ideal state, I could do both… maybe a quick writing exercise to keep everything sharp and fresh, but spend most of my time and attention on an outline, plot ideas or even high-level edits. This will do two things; move the process along so I don’t have a fearsome backlog of edits and half-baked ideas and set up a consistent, daily practice for the other elements of creating and managing stories. I’m wary of not creating prose every day, but I need to push through.

Another change is how and where I do these non-writing tasks. I need to find that consistent second spot where I can focus for 1-3 hours at a time and really immerse myself in a problem. No reason I can’t do it here, at home, but it’s not working. Too many people, distractions, food, chores, etc. I need a physical space where I can read, edit, lift my head and think. Quietly. Luckily, the local library re-opened a few months ago; I need to spend a few hours there and see if it fits the bill. And soon. Another thought is writing to music. To date, most of my writing has been without music or background noise. But the other noises of life, the sound of my kids getting ready to leave in the morning or the incessant roar of motorcycles grinding past on the nearby highway distracts me. So many authors, from Lewis to Holiday, write to the same repetitive playlist. I need to find mine and put on the earbuds and crank. Without distraction, I should get through my daily words sooner and leave time for the other tasks.

The last change is to have more work “out there”. I have put nothing into the world in months. Part of this change is the long, gatekeeper driven process for publishing. The other part is not finishing the editing on pieces. I need to get multiple stories out for publishing consideration simultaneously. There shouldn’t be a week where I don’t receive feedback from a publisher. Then, if I can’t find a home for a piece, I should publish it here. Anything to get more eyes on the work.