Creating from the middle

Some people claim they can only create when they hit a bottom.

Some people claim they can only create when they hit a top.

No doubt a lot of creativity can come from extremes. But what happens the rest of the time?

We can't all be Hunter S. Thompson, whose daily routine would kill most people on the first day.

But we can all be Stephen King, about whom I wrote recently. His advice is to show up, and keep showing up.

Steven Pressfield offers the same advice.

You can certainly do some things to make it easy to maintain some continuity in your creativity. Earnest Hemingway used to stop writing mid-sentence so that he'd have a starting point for the next day. Pablo Picasso, on the other hand, disagreed. He said you can stop if you're willing to leave the work as complete should you die before you get back to it.

Ritual is important to creating. So are habits. And routines.

Nothing's foolproof, of course. Even the greatest slip up sometimes.

But if you keep showing up, your chances of success get much better.

Coloring outside the lines

When Hurricane Irma was coming toward us in September, we were scheduled for a trip to Central New York for a family wedding.

We were at the car rental counter when we landed, and inquired about adding days onto our rental if that became necessary — the day we were scheduled to return to Savannah was the day Irma was expected to hit the area, making our return on that day unlikely and our ultimate return day uncertain.

The clerk at the counter wasn't confident that we'd be able to extend our reservation, especially with the same car, but she suggested that we call the agency we booked the car through to check.

"Hypothetically speaking," I asked her, "what if our flight were to get moved to, say, Wednesday, and we just didn't bring your car back until then?"

She explained that if we were able to extend the reservation, it wouldn't be a problem, but otherwise, they'd give the car to someone else.

It took several go-arounds for me to make my point. We were scheduled to bring the car back Monday, and they could therefore rent the car to someone else on Monday.

In order for her to hand someone else the keys to the car, though, we would have to bring the car back. What if we didn't?

She simply couldn't conceive of someone not following the rules.


In a coloring book, the lines constrain an image, but not a palette. An object is offered, but the scene is not. Take this gorilla with a bow tie, for instance:

The gorilla has a proud expression on its face, but outside of the animal straightening a bow tie, we have no context. Coloring inside the lines augments the subject, but still doesn't give us any context. Did the gorilla steal the bow tie from a zoo visitor? Is there a formal dance at the panda display? Is the gorilla crashing the Academy Awards?

If you want to tell a story, it's the part outside the lines that is most important.


The law of the instrument says, in its most famous iteration, if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

It's really a story about education — one early version says:

Give a boy a hammer and chisel; show him how to use them; at once he begins to hack the doorposts, to take off the corners of shutter and window frames, until you teach him a better use for them, and how to keep his activity within bounds.

Within bounds? That will sound familiar to my Masonic brethren.

In Freemasonry, when we speak of bounds, we're talking generally about "keeping our passions within due bounds," that is to say, even in the face of anger or frustration, we are to keep a level head and treat people politely.

What it doesn't mean, though, is to treat every situation in the same way.

We have leeway to come up with reasonable solutions. So too, the child with the hammer and chisel. There are times when it is perfectly reasonable to use a hammer and chisel.


You could use the face of a hammer to break the safety glass and the claw to pull a fire alarm. You could play pool with the grip as a cue.

You could use a hammer to open a bottle or can, set a broken nose or make mashed potatoes.

You could carry a thin sheet of hot metal.

Each case would certainly be within due bounds, if unorthodox. Except the setting a broken nose bit. I'm pretty sure that's exactly how they do it. If you've ever seen my nose and noticed sort of a re-curve in the bridge, that's an over-corrected broken nose, and it looks exactly like someone took a hammer to it.


Duncker's candle problem is a cognitive exercise in which a subject is placed at a table next to a wall. On the table are a candle, a book of matches or a lighter, and a cardboard box of thumbtacks.

The charge is to light the candle and walk away, but ensure that no wax drips on the table.

The solution is to empty the box of tacks, tack the box to the wall, and place the candle in the box.

The success rate when Duncker first proposed the exercise was fairly low.

If the same items are presented but with the tacks piled on the table next to the box, the success rate is almost 100 percent.


I don't know this for sure, but I'm guessing the linear, inside-the-lines thinking that gives people trouble creating scenes around a coloring-book gorilla, makes Duncker's exercise difficult and makes it hard to understand that someone might not follow established norms is learned.

I know our education system is based on a factory model, though increasingly we have de-institutionalized ways around that, from MOOCs to on-demand boutique learning through sites like Udemy or Creative Live or The Great Courses Plus, to tutorials on YouTube on anything from changing your oil to installing a water heater to building a shed.

Without allowing creative thought and nonlinear problem solving to take a larger role in our development through schooling (and subsequently through our largely institutionalized workplaces), we're going to have fewer and fewer people to take the sorts of shots that Elon Musk, Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil are taking, or that Astro Teller is looking for over at Google X.

Let's think differently and make the world much more amazing.

No more bad art

It's going to be a few weeks of reaching deep for me.

Stephen King's advice to writers includes this important bit:

Write every single day.
 
"Once I start work on a project, I don't stop, and I don't slow down unless I absolutely have to," says King. "If I don't write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind ... I begin to lose my hold on the story's plot and pace."
 
If you fail to write consistently, the excitement for your idea may begin to fade. When the work starts to feel like work, King describes the moment as "the smooch of death." His best advice is to just take it "one word at a time."

Seth Godin blogs every damn day.

A few things converged recently in my life. We had an inspiring conversation with Jon Vroman. After I read his book, I picked up Bill Morrissey's Edson again. It reminds me a of few things:

  1. You can feel old when you're young, if you want. The story's protagonist is 37 and at the end of his rope when the novel opens.
  2. Life is short. The author died shortly before he turned 60.
  3. Share. Just as I was introduced to Morrissey by Tommy Shea (formerly of the Springfield (Mass.) Republican), Morrissey introduced me to Mississippi John Hurt.
  4. Give. Morrissey signed eight copies of his book for me one night after a concert and reading. That took some time for him, especially with a room full of people who wanted to talk to him, and he left me a nice inscription.

Around the same time, my old friend James O'Brien popped up in my Facebook feed with some new old music.

O'Brien was the first artist whose music made sense to me after 9/11. I always think about him this time of year.

His song "War Has Come" reminds me where some of my privileges lay, but also that they come with a responsibility.

It's easy to write a bullet. It does not hiss, it is not close to me. It's easy to write a wound. I've never clamped a femoral artery.

It also reminds me that art requires internal war — and is sometimes itself an act of war.

When I was on Cesspool, I was asked who my dream podcast guests were. I deferred. I've already interviewed Joan Jett and Bruce Campbell and David Clayton-Thomas and some other great talents. I said I wanted to have something to offer the Marc Marons and Joe Rogans of the world.

I've been sitting on that thought for five years, and I've done a little toward it, but not enough.

So I'm reminded, again, of John Baldessari's purge. It marked a turning point for him, but it was a calculated turning point. He didn't wake up one day and say, "Fuck this old shit I did, it was terrible!" He decided what would serve as a reminder of his past, but that didn't need to take up space for him anymore.

So I'm starting today, planning my purge. It'll probably be a weeks-long process, but it will mean improvements, I hope. In my life, in the content I produce, for the future, and for my legacy.

Onward.

More: Who challenges you?

What passion and purpose look (sound) like

John-Speaking

In the early 2000s, one of Jon Vroman's friends challenged him to run an ultramarathon. That's two full marathons back to back — 52.4 miles — and Vroman hadn't ever run more than a couple of miles before.

One day on a training run, Vroman, who at that time was a successful sales coach, suggested they use the race as a fundraiser.

They had a hard time picking a charity so they did the next best thing: created one.

The Front Row Foundation works with terminally ill patients and their families to provide "front row moments" at recipients' dream events. It's not just tickets to the event. The organization makes an amazing overall experience, from limo pickups to nice dinners to meet-and-greets when possible.

Nikki, for example, suffers from HER2-Positive Stage IV Breast Cancer. She's a life-long Dallas Cowboys fan. Check out how Front Row Foundation hooked her up:

Vroman's gone on to become a speaker and coach, and is author of The Front Row Factor: Transform Your Life with the Art of Moment Making.

The book is really inspiring, and so is Jon. He graced us with over an hour of discussion over on the JKWD Podcast. Give it a listen and learn how to win a personalized hardcover copy of the book.

Love and hate

It's so much easier to love than to hate.

Watch a couple of Alex Jones videos, then watch a couple by Jon Vroman.

Sure, Jones has more views. But looking at them and listening to them, whose life would you rather have? The one who yells a lot, or the one who smiles a lot?

Misery loves company. It needs you to be there. Love can go solo, but welcomes you along.

Your choice.

More than just information

“If information were the answer," Derek Sivers once told Tim Ferriss, "we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”

If you are of a certain age, you remember CDs, and if you were early enough to the internet, you remember that once upon a time, CDBaby was the place for independent musicians to sell their wares.

Sivers created CDBaby, then sold it for a boatload of money, which he largely gave away.

He's read, reviewed and synopsized dozens of books so that you don't have to.

Information, then, is important to him, or he wouldn't have done all that reading.

But there's something more. The information isn't enough. It needs to be mixed with the best of each of us to take form, to become something greater.

Be undeniably you


Twinsies!? From left: Vin Diesel, Adam Sandler, Josh Shear.

"Hey, man, you look like Vin Diesel!"

"Hey, thanks! Check this out: I even have the haircut," I replied, lifting up my cap for proof.

I was in a hotel bar, towel over my shoulder, fanny pack around my waist, handing a crumpled $20 bill over the counter for a lager in a plastic cup.

Diesel (real name Mark Sinclair), is listed at just shy of six feet tall and around 225 pounds. He's 60 years old. When I saw a trailer for a recent film of his, I asked, "when did Adam Sandler get so big?" Sandler is also 50 years old. He's listed at 5'9" and about 185 pounds.

I'm 10 years their junior, 5'2" tall (on a good day, I might hit 5'3") and at my heaviest, I tend to weigh in around 165 pounds. I'm not anywhere near Sandler's size, never mind Diesel's.

The guy at the bar who told me I looked like Diesel was working on his second Budweiser, so let's assume he was pretty well with it.

Anyway, it's at least flattering to be taken for a celebrity. Even a celebrity I sometimes mistake for another celebrity.

To be honest, I've seen very few of their movies, combined. Sorry, gentlemen. I respect your art, it's just not for me. But you keep doing you.

And that's what this is about — you being you.


Be you. Be your own original. You look like what you look like — or whom you look like, for that matter — but don't let those comparisons shape the person you are or would like to be.


I was told the evening before I was mistaken for an action movie star that there is a dentist in Milwaukee who could be my twin.

I stood looking contemplatively for a moment at the woman who told me that. I may have stood vacantly for just a moment too long because she apologized for any offense; I told her no, I was just filing that away in case that information became useful someday.

See also: Reasonable doubt.

I had been reading The Godfather at the time.


Again, be you. Be an original. Whether you resemble a famous actor or a bodybuilder or a dentist in Milwaukee, if you're not one of those things, don't try to become them. Don't emulate them.

Be the person you are, or become the person you will become.

Know your audience (or at least get their money before you insult them)


Photo by Jenny Shear

The Waimea Canyon lookout at Pu'u Hinahina on the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i is 13 miles up a winding road. About 10 miles up that road there is another lookout, and the sign makes it unclear which way the road continues and which way the lookout rests.

We accidentally pulled off three miles before the beginning of our planned hike and figured that we'd take in a view before continuing up.

When we got to the lookout, there was a man (pictured above) who told us some of the history and customs of the native Hawaiian people. Before hula became a sensual dance performed by women in coconut bras and grass skirts, it was a war dance performed by men in masks hoping to send the enemy into retreat before combat became necessary.

He taught us a little about the language, about how the word aloha breaks down into alo, meaning a shared presence, and ha, the breath of life.

And then he told us a little about himself and what he does.

You see, a few years ago, he was arrested and charged with being an unlicensed vendor. He'd been coming to this spot with a tip basket and a history lesson for tourists to provide for his family, unsanctioned by the parks service or any state agency.

He argued in his own defense, asking the judge for proof that the prosecuting attorney had jurisdiction to arrest and charge him. He said he didn't recognize the United States' sovereignty over Hawaii. He asked to see the articles of annexation. After five trips to court — five days he couldn't provide for his family because he was in court — his case was dismissed after the prosecutor failed to provide the requested document.

He continued his story about how Kaua'i, the furthest Hawaiian island from the US mainland (outside of one privately owned island with a small, mostly native population) and least developed to date, is being bought up by people who love its unspoiled nature, and are spoiling it. He complained about Mark Zuckerberg's purchase of 700 acres on the island.

At this point, his crowd started to scatter. He'd received one tip from someone who left before he got into his lesson.

As you might guess, his audience was largely (probably entirely) tourists. All were white. No one wanted to stick around to hear how badly we were destroying things — we knew we had a history of doing that on the US mainland and we were here to get away from, among other things, a particularly nasty bout of political shouting.

Educational vacation? Sure, I like learning things. I don't, however, enjoy being lectured to. If I want your opinion on politics and the local atmosphere, I'll ask. And I probably would have said some

If you rely on people giving you tips for a living, ask for money when you're at a high point in your speech. Don't wait until you're lecturing them on their bad behavior.

Know your audience. Stop talking at the point they're most likely to give you money. If you get to that point and they're not giving you money, cut bait. If you keep talking, you might accidentally find your foot in your mouth.

Reinventing the pizza, not the pizza box: Discourse in the wake of the Scalise shooting

Hop on in here around 55 minutes and give it four minutes or so. Ryan Singer and Johnny Z are discussing how we deal with each other, and right before the 58 minute mark, Singer comes up with this analogy:

"It doesn't matter if the pizza box changes, it's the pizza."

The pizza box, he says, is technology and society and who is president at any given time and what sorts of structures we live in, but we're the pizza.

It doesn't matter how fancy the box is, if the pizza doesn't change, it's still the same old pizza.

Singer's point here is that you can dress us up any way you want. You can make us high tech, you can let us read minds, you can make us invisible with mirrored clothing. Unless the change happens inside, we're still the same ol' same ol'.

The country saying for this is lipstick on a pig. You can dress it up all you want, it's still a pig.

If you're an asshole, you can put on a shirt that says "peace, love and tie dye" and go to yoga class and say "namaste," but you're still an asshole.

It doesn't matter what's going on on the outside.

Last Tuesday, June 13, was a quiet night at work. It might have been the quietest night of the Trump administration. The Calder Cup final wrapped up (that's the AHL championship — minor league hockey), but there was little else of note in any of our markets.

The next morning, we woke up to news that Rep. Steve Scalise and four others had been shot while practicing for the annual Congressional baseball game. Despite once being tied to White Supremacist David Duke — charges stemming from when Scalise thought he was attending a campaign rally that turned a little more sinister — he is generally well-liked by his colleagues in the House, whatever their party affiliation.

Something feels different about this than when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in early 2011.

In the Giffords shooting, the gunman had shown anti-government leanings, posting about mind control and that kind of things. He was out to get someone in the federal government and an opportunity presented itself with the Giffords rally.

In the Scalise shooting, someone who was politically active in a traditional sense — the gunman had volunteered on the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (Sanders didn't equivocate on his views here) and had left home to be closer to Washington, where he apparently thought he could be more useful as an activist — went looking for Republicans to shoot.

In the Giffords case, the shooter was paranoid and looking for a way out. In the Scalise case, the shooter had tried to take a traditional route and given up.

The problem with dialogue in this country for the most part is we're no longer listening to each other. We're waiting for the other person to stop speaking so that we can start.

I'm generalizing, of course. There's good discussion and reasonable debate happening every day in every city.

It's just rarely on display in public. And never at the federal level.

Reaction since the Scalise shooting has been a little different. Apart from the partisan wrangling over guns — some of course calling for tighter gun control and others saying we should allow Congress to carry weapons — there have been calls for partisan unity that have been muted, where normally these are empty and grandstanded.

"We are united in our shock. We are united in our anguish," Speaker Paul Ryan said. "An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us."

Rep. Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, warned about a "deterioration in the manner we talk to each other."

Even President Donald Trump, not exactly known for muted responses and calm, non-partisan rhetoric, had only this to say:

This is a good time for a period of reflection for all of us. The seasons are changing. If you're reading this the day it publishes, the solstice is tonight just after midnight Eastern.

Take a couple of days and decide if you're going to spend the rest of your life speaking at — or worse, shouting over — people you disagree with, rather than actually listening to what they're saying and perhaps even taking it to heart, and letting it change your mind if it strikes that chord in you.

It's certainly time for our national pizza to evolve. Is it time for your pizza to change, too?

Some related stuff you might like:
Civility in disagreement
I was on Me & Paranormal You talking Freemasonry