One of the rules of writing advertising copy is that a story is always better than a statistic.
Statistics have their place in copywriting (four out of five dentists recommend this gum), but only when they’re backed up with a story illustrating the statistics. One picture of a starving child motivates more people to give money than a sentence saying there are millions of starving children in the world.
Why not challenge yourself to take a statistic you use all the time and turn it into a story?
Especially if your story goes against the grain of the statistic.
One of my favorite things to do on Yelp is to find the exceptional (4.9 stars!) restaurants and businesses and read the one-star reviews. They often tell the story of why they’re such a successful business. They eject someone loudly talking on their cell phone during a meal or a reviewer didn’t like that the person taking the order didn’t speak perfect English and they had to repeat themselves.
Look at a statistic somewhere and think about it from both sides. Tell a story that grows from just looking at the numbers. Put the empathy and emotion back into the statistics that were drawn out of them when they were turned into a graphic for a CNN story.
Who is the dentist that won’t recommend sugar-free gum? Why would someone vote for a candidate that doesn’t represent their interests? Who doesn’t want to move out of a neighborhood when the real estate prices are so high they would triple their money?
Every statistic is really just a boring package wrapped in brown paper filled with interesting stories just waiting for you to unpack them.
We’ve all faced an overwhelming to-do list and felt like we don’t even know where to start. Are you that way with ideas?
At my work, we divide our ideas into an A, B, and C list. A-list items are the things we must do, B-list are things we’ll probably do and C-list are concepts that we want to talk about again but aren’t quite there yet.
One thing that we’ve noticed with our B-level ideas is that even if we feel strongly about them when we write them down, some seem to lose their energy over time. Sometimes, you can’t even remember why you wrote an idea down in the first place. Instead of being this exciting future project, we all forget we were even going to do it and it becomes a lodestone on things we should be doing.
So, we’ve come to use the B-list as a place to park ideas to see if they gather passion and connected ideas or fade away into nothing. Also, sometimes we figure out that the idea, or a version of it, has been done before.
Do you need to look at your personal B-list and see if it’s time to let go of ideas that seemed good at one point but now just hang there as a burden? Is there any future project that you should let go of?
Clean house! You can cross an idea off your list by deciding that it’s not worth doing.
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was one of the pioneers of computer programming. In 1952, she developed a compiler that allowed people to program in English and then convert it into code. Besides being brilliant, she had an ability to get amazing things done in tightly controlled, risk-averse situations.
Her advice for being creative was to look for questions that people answered with “we’ve always done it this way” and see if there was another way to do it. Always be looking for a better way. Challenge yourself not to settle into a groove without some experimentation to make sure you’re doing it the best possible way.
She believed in this so strongly that she made the following promise which you are welcome to apply to yourself.
For the rest of your life, every time you say, “We’ve always done it that way,” my ghost will appear and haunt you for twenty-four hours.
Who wants to be haunted by a ghost shaming you for your complacency? If someone asked you why you were doing things the way you’re doing them, would you have an answer?
I often tell young artist who are like, “How can I get past these things?” I’m just like, “For one thing, try doing your very worst work. Do the worst song you can possibly think of. At the very least, you’ll get some idea of what your rules are. At the most, you’re going to get something that’s better than anything you’ve ever done because it has a lot of pure energy.” Nobody going, “That’s not good.” Somebody was going, “Just make it bad. Just make it really bad.” You know, so pure and bad. I have tried that. That works well. Sometimes I clutch on that, too. I think, “No, that’s so bad it’s good.” Go on and on and get yourself twisted up into a language!
I love the idea of purposely doing your worst work to get past a creative block.
As Laurie Anderson says in the quote, you are forced to define what “bad work” is when you do that. What rules are you breaking? Are they your rules or the rules of some objective source?
When doing your worst work, there is no judgment. (Or is it all judgment?) In fact, the criticism in your head fuels what you’re working on. That voice in your head that tells you what you’re doing is bad is suddenly empowered. Instead of shooting down your ideas, it’s coming up with ideas to make it worse!
Of course, good and bad are just tricks of language. Maybe what you do will be too obvious or too obscure, and it will turn out that that is exactly what your work needed. Sometimes our rules are not about producing what is best, but something in our comfort zone.
Doing putrid work relieves you of responsibility for the final work and pushes you over the boundaries of what you’d usually try.
Try doing your absolute worst, definitely no good, all-time stinkeroo, very bad work!
Should I do it? Should I start this long project? Am I being selfish? Does it make sense?
It’s almost like a tic with some people. Instead of following their instincts, they have to check out their next move with all the people around them. They ask their best friend, barista, significant other, strangers on Facebook or whatever other person crosses their path that day.
But, they really don’t care about the opinions of the other people. They want someone, or everyone, to say “yes.” Yes, you should do that. What a great idea!
This works well if you have a supportive friend who trusts your instincts more than you do. They’ll say yes no matter what because they know that if you’re asking them, it’s something you’ve thought about.
But, in most situations, revealing your half-formed idea to the world will cause it to wither and shrink. You’ll get an array of opinions, some valid and some crazy.
If you want to take a sculpting course at the community college down the street, don’t ask other people whether you should. Remember that C- you got in art class in High School? You can’t even arrange flowers, and you want to sculpt clay? Look at you, thinking you’re all fancy. You’re probably trying to get out of buying Christmas gifts next year, and we’ll all get “sculptures” from your class.
That’s when asking other people turns into justifying all your self-doubts and inertia about starting new things. You can say to yourself, I wanted to do it, but everyone else made fun of me so, I didn’t. For the rest of your life, you can think about what could have been.
Should I write a novel about a journalist who gives up her job at a newspaper to make artisanal ice cream called, One More Scoop? Who cares what anyone else thinks? Do it!
An artist friend of mine was complaining about another artist.
The other artist’s work didn’t seem that bad to me. Then, my friend pointed out that the other artist’s style was built entirely around his inability to draw faces. He always organized all the figures in the art so that they faced away from the viewer or wore heavy hoods or masks. Never once, in all the art that came up with you googled his name, was there a full face.
If you only looked at one drawing, you wouldn’t notice. But, once you looked at all his work, it was impossible not to see.
Is your style based not on your strengths, but on your limitations?
What if instead of avoiding what you can’t do, you worked on it. You focused on being ok with what you currently can’t do at all. It’s not that you’ll ever be the best at it, but that you’ll be able to stop avoiding it altogether.
Obviously, you want to use what you’re exceptional at to your best advantage, but merely avoiding your challenges sticks out like a sore thumb.
Make sure your work reflects choices on your part, not fear of your limitations. Avoiding what you’re afraid of is not a style choice, it’s just refusing to expose your soft underbelly to the world.
When you’re not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don’t play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.
These last two commandments are related. They are both about the care and feeding of your creativity. The first is about respecting your talent. Treat it as a living thing.
Don’t neglect it or take it for granted when you’re not using it. Put it in a dark place so that it’s completely turned off. You’re not letting your car idle in the garage, you’ve got it stored entirely away under a protective barrier. Make sure it’s fed and watered and comfortable, but that it’s hibernating.
Also, notice that he mentions not using it for more than a day as an exception. You should use it every day, but if you do spend more than a day without using it, let it know you’re still thinking about it.
His dish of water is, of course, metaphorical, I think you can “water” your creativity by consuming related art from other people. Read, listen to music, watch a movie, just make sure that you are getting information and experiences that when you pick it back up will inform what you do. Take a trip to a museum, walk through a field of flowers or volunteer somewhere.
10. You gotta have a hood for your engine
Keep that hat on. A hat is a pressure cooker. If you have a roof on your house, the hot air can’t escape. Even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow.
Just like you’ve got to treat your creativity like a living thing, you can’t let it roam around free in the wild. You’ve got to create a habitat for it. There has to be a fence around the field where you keep it.
When you’re charged up and in the middle of a creative burst, you’ll feel like you can do anything, but you shouldn’t. Keep yourself contained. Set limitations for yourself about what you’re trying to accomplish.
Maybe it’s just picking a song to master or writing a short story. Focusing on one project lets you put all the horsepower produced by your engine into one thing, no wasted energy or confusion.
Whether you’re writing a children’s book or a blues song, decide what your project is and focus on that. All the heat from your heater will be keeping that project warm during the coldest moments.
Make decisions that limit what the project is so that you can finish it. People that never complete things are continually moving the target for what the project is and what finished means. If you say you’re going to write a poem on a postcard and mail it to yourself every day, you’ve limited the length of the poem, and you know that each one has to be done before the mail gets picked up. Sometimes it’s not going to be a great poem, but you’ll be finishing things and creating.
If you place the right limitation on yourself, the right hat on your head or wet piece of paper towel on your bean, your talent will grow. The number of projects you complete will grow, and they will be better than you think possible.
That’s your key-man clause. Like One String Sam. He’s one. He was a Detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. His song “I Need a Hundred Dollars” is warm pie. Another key to the church is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty — making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he’s doing it.
What is a church key? In the slang of the 1950s, it refers to a bottle opener. So Captain Beefheart is referring to both an actual church door and a bottle opener in this case. How do you open the door to the spirit realm and get to what you’re looking for?
He tells you to to carry your inspirations with you. Look to the people that make you realize what is possible to help you with your work. Just hearing their music or reading their books or listening to them speak fires up your creativity.
He mentions two people specifically. The first is One String Sam who played the Diddley Bow which is just a plank with a single string stretched across it. He created a classic song and recording with just that. No wonder he’s a key to the church. He created something from nothing.
The other is Hubert Sumlin, who is widely recognized as one of the greatest guitar players of all time. He played every song with fantastic authenticity and emotion, bringing out qualities that you didn’t realize were there. He’s an inspiration in that he’s a national monument, almost unreal in his ability. The kind of person that you aspire to be, but is on another plane of existence. Mythologically talented.
I think there are many more kinds of “church keys” in the world, but his example is an excellent example of the primary broad division: someone who does not have the advantages you have and makes a piece of art you admire from sheer force of will and someone who has more skill and talent than you have that you aspire to be.
8. Don’t wipe the sweat off your instrument
You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.
I love this one.
Get your stink on your art. When you create something, leave the parts in there that make it unique to you. Don’t make it generic.
Make sure that people can see your work. That you are sending a part of yourself off with the finished piece. That your sweat from the effort is a permanent part of it.
When you think of your favorite musicians, comedians, artists, writers or dancers, you can tell their work within moments of seeing it. Their signature is in every second of what they do.
I write a lot of catalog copy. That means I read a lot of catalog copy. Most of it is boring and generic. You couldn’t tell if a company switched writers or used multiple people because they polish off the sweat before they use it. But, other companies know the value of a voice for what they do. When reading it, you can see the person writing it, even if all they’re doing is describing a bunch of boxes.
Don’t play Muzak. Don’t write bland, universal copy. Don’t do hotel art. Don’t tell hacky jokes.
The scary thing is that if you’re recognizably a part of it, when it gets rejected, which it sometimes will, part of you will be getting the rejections as well. By leaving your mark on what you do, you are taking a giant risk. That’s why people don’t do it. It hurts less when mediocre work gets rejected.
But, you don’t want to do mediocre work. You want to do great work.
That means you’re going to have to get your stink on it.
If your brain is part of the process, you’re missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.
The act of creation is not about thinking. You don’t wait until you’re ready. Creation is an action. You prepare for the act of creating with years of practice and being excellent at your craft, but while you’re doing it, don’t think about it. Don’t critique it. Don’t judge it.
When you’re staring a blank page, you’re drowning, struggling to fill the page to give yourself solid ground to stand on. You have to do it. Don’t let that blank page overwhelm you.
Create as if your life depends on it.
A drowning person never thinks, “I’m just going to sit here and wait to be inspired to try and get to the surface. I wish I could find the energy for it today. I have so much to do, and I keep getting distracted by the sound of that boat engine. How do they expect me to try and breathe with all that noise going on? I’ll start saving myself next month after that project is done at work.”
Use the feeling of saving your own life to create. Don’t create because you want to but because you have to. If you don’t, some part of yourself will be gone forever. Struggle to reach the shore before that impulse to create is gone forever.
And if you can “trap” that feeling you won’t create just anything; you’ll create something of great value. The phrase “fur-bearing” refers to an animal with a valuable hide.
6. Never point your guitar at anyone
Your instrument has more clout than lightning. Just hit a big chord then run outside to hear it. But make sure you are not standing in an open field.
We tend to underestimate the power of what we make. It is as powerful as a gun. It’s as powerful as lighting. It’s a grenade. It’s a meat cleaver. It’s a hungry tiger. It’s the worst thing someone said to you in high school. It’s an atomic bomb. It’s a bully waiting for you around the corner. It’s a lightsaber. It’s a surgical instrument. It can change the world if we control it correctly, but in its purest form, it can be dangerous.
We’re bringing these powerful forces through, and we have to treat them with the same respect we’d give anything else that powerful. Do not point it at anyone else. In fact, don’t even point it at yourself, that can be dangerous too.
During the act of creation, you’re dealing with pure emotion from the deepest part of yourself. That can be a lot to take. It needs some room before it’s ready for other people. Even for yourself, get some perspective before you observe it. Don’t try to experience it immediately, run outside to hear it, so there’s a wall between yourself and your creation.
However, even then be careful, if you’re still in a vulnerable position that lighting bolt will find you anyway.
Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush doesn’t shake, eat another piece of bread.
Play until that bush shakes. Sustain yourself with the basics, eat and drink and wait for the moment when you think all the forces have gathered and then let loose. Does the bush shake? Does the earth quake? Then, your practice is over. If not, circle your wagons and try again.
The interesting thing is that the bush isn’t capable of reacting. Is the guitar playing like a strong wind? Is it the vibrations? The force of the playing?
Nope, it’s you.
You decide when you’re ready. You know when the bush shakes or the tree cries or the rock in your garden explodes with laughter. It’s inside your head.
Don’t listen to other people. You’re the judge. If you can’t handle it yet, practice in front a bush until it shakes.
It reminds me of a zen story about a master who told his student to meditate on an ox until he understood it. When the student failed, the teacher told him he had to stay in his hut until he had a total understanding of the ox. After a week, the teacher came by and asked again. The student said he still did not understand the ox. The teacher said, “You may leave the hut now if you want, but you can never return.”
The student tried but found he couldn’t leave. When the teacher asked why, the student said, “I can’t get out the door. My horns are too wide to fit.”
Practice until the bush shakes. It’s probably already shaking and you just haven’t noticed yet.
4. Walk with the devil
Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the “devil box.” And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you’re bringing over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.
Are you too meek in your art? What are kinds of ideas are you trying to attract? Do you think you’re being dangerous, flirting with the dark side and you’re attracting Casper the Friendly Ghost?
Dare to be loud. Don’t let fear hold you back from fully exploring your ability to create. Flirt with the darkness and see what’s there. It’s not that the good stuff comes solely from the darkness, but if you never go there, you’re cutting yourself off from a vast source of inspiration.
Also, you can choose to whisper your art or to limit your release of it, but you can also face your fear directly and sometimes bring over devils and demons from the other side. They’re always there, what happens when we recognize them and explore them instead of denying their existence?
The fact that you have an amplifier means you can play it louder and share it with more people.
Use the tools at your disposal to face your fears and shame, to summon the forces you want. Make sure you’re being challenged. Walk with the devil for a while and see where it leads.
After all, you don’t have to show anyone else what you’ve created until the bush shakes.