5 Tips for Unfocused Artists

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It’s ten minutes to 1pm on a Sunday afternoon, and the last thing I want to do is sit here at this computer and form words together on a word processor.

At least, that’s what my body is telling me:

There’re dishes to do.

Laundry to put away.

Brunch to cook and eat.

A shower to have.

Groceries and hormone medication to purchase.

And a mother to go and visit – long, long, overdue.

And yet, I have been aching — physically crying out — to sit down and write, all weekend. I want to be here. I want to sit down at this desk (technically breakfast bar?) and reconfigure the last problem area in Book of Wind, so that I can finally move on to something else (Hopefully, Eri book 2).

I’ve been sitting here since 9 o’clock this morning, listening to the Happy Console Gamer and the Diablo 1 OST with pieces of a new chapter spread across three different open documents, Wikipedia tabs open pertaining to the geographies of Scotland and Ireland, a dictionary.com definition of ocean firths, a Google images search for “firth” (resulting in an endless wall of Colin Firths), not to mention bringing up inside jokes with my live-in partner about Shinji Ikari’s cousin from the southern states, Corncob Ikari, to which I am being verbally assaulted for merely mentioning here and now in writing (“How dare you reveal our secrets? I’m mad right now.”), and nothing to show for this newly-revised chapter other than mental exhaustion and a bladder full of coffee and Jade Citrus Mint tea.

I know what this chapter looks like. I know what needs to happen and where it needs to go. Its contents are easily-visualized in my imagination. It’s just a matter of sitting down and doing it. Putting the time in, powering through, distraction-free.

 

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And you bet your buns I took necessary time away from writing so that I could make this picture of Shinji’s American cousin, Corncob Ikari. He’s a farmer from Nebraska.

Except, of course, it’s not that easy.

In my last blog post (I’m going to pretend it was last week, because this is supposed to be a weekly blog, right?), I mentioned the struggle of diverging focus on building a social media audience, when all of my energy wants to go to writing. Ultimately, this leads to mental exhaustion.

I want to write, I physically need to write. So I sit down, put on some music, and stare at a blank screen for as long as my body will allow until the sudden urge to get up and make a tea, or go to the bathroom, or snuggle with my cat, or joke with my partner, or all of the above, takes over.

Most every artist who dabbles in throwing words at a page struggles with procrastination and focus. My background is in journalism, and this problem was prevalent with myself, my peers, backed by evidence supported by our collective professors and mentors in the field. It’s no wonder why so many writers struggle with substance abuse: drugs and alchohol sometimes help bring down the internal walls guarded by Inner Critics and Overanalyzers.

And as someone who has recently discovered that she’s more than likely been living with undiagnosed Inattentive-Presenting ADHD for all of her life, the temptation to drown my unhinged thoughts and lack of focus with a brim-tall glass of wine and a few puffs of the ganja are pretty strong right now. Because, haha, Heaven knows downing twelve cups of tea and coffee in a row does the complete opposite of what I need my body to do, and I start to feel sleepy.

I’m sure some of you can relate to this sense of artistic frustration in one way or another. And it’s easy to be frustrated with one’s self-imposed expectations for “productivity”.

But I think the imporant thing to recognize here is that it’s happening, and to forgive yourself in the moment, and most important: try to maintain good humour about these frustrations.

When you’re able to recognize your “faults”, and laugh at yourself, the dehibilitating power of these issues we face when it comes to starting, and finishing, our art projects ultimately become lessened. At least, I like to think so. Sure, we’re still going to procrastonate, and become frustrated, and absentmindedly leave a wall of Colin Firths open in our Internet Browser (because fuck that’s funny to click on when we least expect it). But recognizing these patterns and why they are happening (be it internal or external forces vying for your attention) allows us some grace as artists to step back, have a chuckle, and utilize our imaginations as a problem-solving mechanism.

I mean, part of our job as artists is to problem solve, right? Whether you’re a painter, an author, a sculptor, what have you, we are all ultimately sitting down with a dozen or so intellectual pieces of a potential puzzle we’d like to solve (the puzzle being whatever project we’re working on, and the pieces being the literal vague or planned ideas we would like to incorporate into these projects). The only difference is that we are trying to solve a much bigger project: our ability to create in an efficient way.

So, for the sake of keeping myself on task, and hopefully try and help some of you who also struggle with these issues, I’ve come up with five ways to help refocus attention on the creative process. Here are some strategies I use:

Meditation: I’ve been meditating on and off since about 2014. My then-business coach  introduced me to mindfulness meditation and Buddhism at a time when I knew things in my life needed to change.

I love meditation because the practice isn’t so much about emptying my mind (like the media often portrays), as it is recognizing my thoughts and separating myself from them; recognizing thoughts as things that are independent from me as a person, and allowing these thoughts to simply pass by as I focus on the relaxing effects of deep breathing.

I typically can’t bring myself to meditate for more than twenty minutes at a time, and it needs to happen in a dark and quiet place where I can close my eyes, seperate from the rest of the world. Even a quick five minute session helps to ground me in a way where all stress and tension seem to just evaporate.

 

Listening to/humming instrumental music: I’ve always used music to write with. Even as a kid, writing stories on my brother’s pentium work laptop (he was a door-to-door salesman for Kirby Vaccum Cleaners), listening to shitty MIDI-quality songs from favourite video games and cartoons was an integral aspect of my creative process.

I say instrumental music works best, because of how distracted I can get listening to anything with lyrics attached to them. There are plenty of artists who can throw on AC/DC or Drake, or Glee: The Music, The Christmas Album, and create to their heart’s content with relative ease (Stephen King is my favourite example of this; the guy rocks out like nobody’s business when he’s creating.) I can’t do it, though. My ears focus on the lyrics instead of the words trying to form in my brain, and it’s just a disaster from there on out.

Instrumental music sets tone and mood of the scenes just as well, in my opinion, and because there are few to no words attached to said songs, the music itself helps focus my thoughts in a creative direction, driving out any other sort of mental intrusion.

At the time of this writing, I’m a Starbucks barista in my spare time, and the same tactic applies: because there can be so much to do and keep on top of (you’d be surprised how much there is to keep on top of, for a job that revolves around the serving of coffee), that I often find myself humming high-octane themes from some of my favourite video games (Final Fantasy II, Phantasy Star, DOOM) to help focus my attention and keep pace with my coworkers.

 

Smoking the ganja: I have a complicated relationship with cannibis. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it makes things worse. Cannibis has wonderful healing and coping properties, but I will be the first to warn anyone that its effects (both for better or for worse) differ from person to person. Sometimes I hyperfocus on otherwise neglected tasks (doing dishes, getting back to people’s texts…). Sometimes I’ll overthink every self-percieved flaw and have an emotional breakdown because I’m a horrible human being who should have recognized the signs that my ill cat had contracted something months ago, and should have taken her to the vet ASAP (Don’t worry – I did, and she’s doing just fine).

When I use cannibis, typically it’s for making art and writing. Because of the way my brain is wired, cannibis helps focus me in a way that nothing else can. It breaks down self-imposed limiting barriers, which for an artist, can be a supreme obstacle to overcome. There are no inner critics, there are no imposing thoughts of, “I have to do laundry, I have to make lunches, I have to pay the bills” — there’s just the hyperfocused ability to enter into your art in its rawest form, and simply create, or see problem scenes/characters from a different perspective.

The Master of Monsters was a project I struggled with for over a decade, until I discovered cannibis, and it’s no wonder why so many creative people use it. The stuff helped me realize a lot of problems in MoM’s narrative, and aided in the creation some of the best and most memorable chapters and plot developments not present in previous drafts. It’s still not a perfect book by any means, but it is a book that I can now proudly stand by as an artist who has matured and honed her craft.

In that regard, cannibis is an amazing tool for the creative process. It’s just important to try to not rely on it as a tool. Good writing comes from practice, and great writing comes from opening your work up to external constructive criticism and subsequent revising. Cannibis might help lower self-imposed walls, but it doesn’t make you a better artist; being in-tune with yourself and your projects makes you a better artist.

 

Working in a closed-off and/or uncluttered area with a lot of space around me: This one’s really important, and to some of you readers, is likely a no-brainer. Personally speaking, I need a lot of space to create. The table or desk needs to be at the perfect height in ratio with the seat of my chair, there needs to be a ton of natural light coming in from somewhere, and a tea kettle needs to be near-boiling close by. Working in a wide-open, distraction-free, area helps alleviate any chance of me feeling suffocated and needing to constantly get up and move.

Perhaps this point is more about harnessing healthy rituals than it is finding the perfect place to sit and work on whatever project is at the top of the list. Creating routine in your life as an artist is just as important as creating art. 

Whether it’s simply about getting dressed in the morning and having a cup of coffee before you create, or limiting access to all WiFi-enabled devices, or going for a brisk walk, or throwing on some amazing hip-hop beats, it’s important that you find what works for you and your muse, in order to be at the top of your potential that day.

 

Practice patience and self-forgiveness for the days that just don’t work out: This is a tough one. And is quite honestly, the most important point on this list. Some days you’re going to sit down at your desk with good intentions, only to stare at a blank screen for hours at a time. Sometimes external factors will demand your focus and attention on days you’re feeling most creative. Somtimes your body, or your mind, or both, will work against you in ways that will make you feel defeated and filled with resentment.

It’s easy to get frustrated with the lack of productivity. Being a creative person comes with a term I learned in journalism school, called “hurry up and wait”. Waiting for the ideas to come, waiting for inspriation to knock on your door, waiting for the caffiene to kick in, waiting for the end of this long and grueling process to be over, so you can move on to the next fresh and exciting idea that keeps knocking on your door.

Sometimes you have to buckle in and drive through these moments of inactivity. Sometimes you have to sit back and say to yourself, “Listen, today didn’t happen. I’m not okay with that, and this is why, but I realize tomorrow is a new day. I’ll try again then.”

Being real with yourself is the key point here. And for most of us, tomorrow will come, and tomorrow will offer new opporotunities to try again. And if it doesn’t, then it’s important to try not to be so hard on yourself.

When I’m feeling this way, I always know my partner and my close friends will be there to support me, and talk sense into me. Shit happens, right? Life will go on, and your project will get finished, so long as you keep plugging away and don’t give up on it.

Accept the day for what it was, recognize where you can improve, but most of all, be patient and forgive yourself when you think you’ve failed. In the grand scheme of things, you are likely more productive than you actually believe you are.

 

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Happy Pride Month! [Claim your free kindle e-book – LIMITED TIME OFFER]

Hiya, Ghosts and Ghouls!

Pride month is a special time of year where folks of all ages, backgrounds, identities, and orientations come together and simply celebrate our uniqueness as human beings. It’s lovely to see communities all across the country band together and just express love, educate, spread awareness — and most importantly, party like no tomorrow, for a whole 30 days. For many of us in the queer community, pride month feels a LOT like the Christmas season.

One thing I love to see is just how much my own community has grown in acceptance and expression over the last few years. Under the new mayor, our town has jumped at the chance at Town Hall flag raisings when local pride communities have approached for approval. The public library has been an advocate during Pride Month ever since its reconstruction six years ago (This year they’re holding a lot of really interesting events, such as a drag queen-centered family story time).

Last year, the town over held its very first Pride March parade which showcased an ASTOUNDING turnout of residents, community leaders, and businesses. The result of which brought leaders from the LGBT community in Toronto up to our small-town neck of the woods to build the community’s very first LGBT-centered bar-and-vegan-lounge (its grand opening was last week!)

It’s a very exciting time. And to celebrate, I’d like to give you (and any fellow reader you know!) two limited-time offers.

First, to commemorate Pride Month, my short story “March of the Androgynous: A Transgender Story” (previously featured in The Human Condition Anthology) is on sale at a month-long 50% discounted price of $2.99 (CAD).

It’s a semi-autobiographical short story I originally wrote in college for a first-year English final, at a time when I was just starting to fully understand my own transgender identity. It’s a story I am so proud of, and am so excited to share with you.

Head over to Amazon to get your copy now!

But wait! What about that free e-book I promised in the header? Don’t worry, that’s coming up. From now until June 9th, I am giving away free kindle copies of “Quest for the Crystals: The Book of Wind”. That’s right, a full-length novel with a value of $9.99, absolutely FREE.

Don’t miss out on this limited time offer — click here to get your free copy today!

As for updates on The Book of Earth, the second draft is speeding by at a healthy momentum. I can’t wait for you to see what is in store next.

That’s all for now, my friend. Thanks for all of your support, and I hope you have a most wonderful rest of your day.

Until next time, Ghosts and Ghouls,

Stay creepy. 😉

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Spirituality in Dickinson’s “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” [Analysis]

I’ll tell you how the sun rose, –
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.

The hills untied their bonnets,
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
“That must have been the sun!”

But how he set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile.
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while

Till when they reached the other side,
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars,
And led the flock away.

Analysis originally published for Humber College, March 2012

Spirituality is an integral aspect of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’ll tell you how the sun rose”. Under Dickinson’s narrative about the rising and setting sun is deep-rooted symbolism in the variety of descriptions and colours she writes about in order to convey the “birth of a new day” in relation to both spirituality and nature.

While the poem is one of Dickinson’s shortest, the structure includes a lot of vibrancy and description. Within the poem’s structure, it’s interesting to note that each reference to wilderness and “warm” colours is led by a capital letter, when noting the morning’s rising sun. “The Steeples swam in Amethyst / The news, like Squirrels, ran / the Hills untied their Bonnets / the Bobolinks – begun / Then I said softly to myself / ‘That must have been the Sun’!” While the bobolinks’ chirping truly symbolizes the “news” of a new dawn, the use of squirrels for the sun casting new light over the lands is interesting, considering squirrels are very quick creatures, and thus shows how fast the night sky is obliterated by the sun. The steeples that Dickinson’s description refers to, alludes to that of a church steeples, and how they are cast in shadow due to the harshness of the “newborn” sunlight. In that respect, the use of the colour amethyst relates to the colour violet, which in turn symbolizes spirituality and the journey for spiritual fulfillment.

When Dickinson writes about what a setting sun looks like, describing, “There seemed a purple stile / That little Yellow boys and girls / Were climbing all the while”, she doesn’t capitalize the first letter of “purple”, indicating a possible drain of energy. In my interpretation, the “Yellow boys and girls” indicate vibrant energy; excitement over being outside and playing after a long afternoon in Sunday school. In reference to the schoolmaster, it is clear that Dickinson is referring to the end of the new day when she writes, “Till when [the children] reached the other side / A Dominie in Gray / Put gently up the evening Bars / And led the flock away”. The colour of the schoolmaster’s clothing also symbolizes the end of a new day, as gray’s meaning is rooted in stability and rest – while at the same time invokes sorrow, which reflects how the children possibly feel about having to be forced away from playing outside to be led back home, where they must go to sleep.

However, the spiritual symbolism doesn’t stop at Dickinson’s use of colours. Throughout the poem, Dickinson uses a syllable count of six, seven, and eight. The numbers six and seven bear symbolism in Christian beliefs; six referring to “The Sixth Day”, the day Man was created, and seven as “The Seventh Day”, the holy day of rest. The six- and seven-syllable lines in Dickinson’s poem respectively symbolize their spiritual meanings; “I’ll tell you how the sun rose” – seven syllables, a reference to the past, meaning restful reflection on something already occurred – “A Ribbon at a time” – six syllables, a reference to the creation of the sun (or Son, meaning Man? An idea subtly noted later in the poem when Dickinson writes, “But how he set [the sun/Son] – I know not”).

The eight-syllable lines, however, refer to darkness and shadow for the most part, as the number eight is seen in Greek lore as a sign of unhappiness or imperfection. Dickinson uses this “unhappiness” symbolism in the lines that relate to purple shadows cast over the church’s steeples and the fence, marking the end of the day and the children’s disappointment that they can’t stay out longer to play with each other.

Therefore, it’s clear as the day dies down and the children are called back inside, we as human beings are summoned to “sleep” as our own days “die” – until eventual rebirth takes place. The crack of dawn, the song of birds, and our awaking breaths, symbolizing new life, a new day. Dickinson’s narration in this poem describes the constant pattern of life and death – its cyclical nature in the form of spiritual and natural symbolism.

 

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Is My Talent Actually Worth It?

It’s difficult to be a creative person in this day and age, I think. I constantly hear the old phrase, “nothing is original,” and as a struggling creative writer who is always on the lookout for inspiration, it can be quite tough to draw quality ideas. So then when it comes time to sit at my computer, ready and willing to unzip the confines of my imagination, I often find myself instead stuck – scared shitless of contrived drivel, and instead deviate to a relentless Google search on how to organically progress in an unfinished story that doesn’t seem to go anywhere.
And then I begin to doubt myself.

I begin to doubt my ability as a creative writer, and even though my work is mostly praised by those who take the time to read, and I’ve always loved the craft, and have known since I was four years old that the life of a professional author is what God had in store for me from day one, I can’t help but become inundated with a lack of confidence.

Is my talent actually worth it?

Am I actually talented at all?

I’m not the only one who goes through these states of self doubt. Everybody does, not just exclusive to the life of an artist. The world of Western Civilization thrives off of the negative auras of people, and leaves levels of unwarranted self-centredness of my generation twofold: I am too fat. I am not a good enough spouse. I am the worst parent. I’m not good enough to live. I can’t do anything right. I am nothing but a giant disappointment to my family.

And, as an aside, it’s such a terrible shame that amazing resources like counselling and therapy are so stigmatized, and are not available for free. But in the case of the artist, what is it that continues to bury the hatchet into any form of creative accomplishment? Personally speaking, I have a lot of great ideas for novels, but so many of my works go incomplete. Is it because I feel a lack of creativity, or is it because I feel that an invisible audience that isn’t actually there will pick apart my work and call me a talentless hack?

Obviously there is a faulty sense of narcissism there – that I worry and care so much about bullshit opinions about something I haven’t even shared with anybody yet.

Yes, we live in an unfortunate age of relentless, over-analytical nitpicking by a vast majority that has forgotten how to enjoy something for the sheer pleasure of simple, mindless, entertainment. Everything these days must have a theme. Everything must have some deep, philosophical, message. Every ending must have a happy, red, bow around it, with all loose ends addressed.
That is not how life works. And I understand most people look to the entertainment industry for an escape from life. But as a creative writer, I want to take risks. I want to churn the butter of emotion, possibly make a reader yell angrily and throw the book across the room when a favourite character dies without rhyme or reason.

Because that’s how I know I’ve made an impact somehow. Positive or negative, I’ve made an impact that will last with a true audience, for more than a few minutes.

I want to write with a tone of realism, even underneath the cloak of fantastical elements. Life is one big plot hole. When we die, life leaves many loose ends not dealt with, and many questions unanswered.

But the invisible audience – my inner critic – it scoffs, and it objects, and it picks apart, down to the last trivial detail.

Whatever happened to the sheer literary high of immersing oneself in the shoes of the characters we read about? Kids don’t care or worry so much about bullshit subtext. As an eight-year-old, I never read R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps for the sole purpose of picking out themes and references to his favourite 1950s monster movies. From my standpoint, Goosebumps, just like Animorphs, Encyclopedia Brown, The Babysitters Club, etc., were stories written for the pure sake of entertaining a captivated audience. Sure, yes, the inclusion of deeper subtext can make a story that more satisfying in the end (especially upon multiple readings), but I wonder if there is too much emphasis on such a thing these days.

Does the fact that I wish to toss away pretentious ideas such as subtext and interpretation for the sake of the elicitation of a raw, page-turning, emotion from a reader make me a hack?
Or … am I just over-thinking the whole thing?

Many – countless – books are printed each year. Many – countless – books reach the best seller’s list, and many – countless – books are total pieces of white dog shit.

Twilight, Fifty Shades … how are books like these so publishable? What is it that real talentless hacks have that a wide variety of readers want?

Even deeply-revered authors, considered literary masters of their time, such as C.S. Lewis and John Tolkien, (in my opinion) are not really very great at the craft either – but, like Stephanie Meyers and E.L. James, have somehow captured the emotions and imaginations of countless readers.

All right, all right – comparing schlocky, ill-researched bondage erotica and shiny control-freak vampire boyfriends to the religious, high-fantasy sagas of Narnia and Middle-earth is a bit extreme. But the point I’m trying to get across can be summarized in something Stephen King once wrote: “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

Stephen King is one of my greatest influences as an aspiring author – but I would be lying blind if I said he himself was God’s gift to talent agencies. Obviously this is attributed to many debilitating factors in his personal life (drug abuse, alcoholism, and getting hit by a car), and although I don’t agree with all of his opinions, I still deeply respect the man as a hard-working, dedicated, writer. As awful as some of his works are, how can you not respect a guy who is so diligent to the craft, that he is able to easily pump out approximately two full-length manuscripts on an almost annual basis?

Whenever I feel like a total shit about myself, and want to set my word processer on fire, I can always rely on a quote related to writing by Stephen King to drag me up through the muck.

David Eddings is another inspiration of mine, and he is constantly ridiculed by dedicated fantasy readers as a hack. It’s true. After the failure of his first novel, High Hunt, and a string of unpublished works, Eddings walked into a book store and was flabbergasted at the fact that Lord of the Rings was in its twenty-eighth reprint. From that point on, Eddings based his future career in the profit sword and sorcery, as he figured that was what sold most at the time.

Regardless of the nature of which Eddings became a well-read fantasy author, the two things he has taught me about the creative venture of pen-to-paper was the importance of dialogue and character development.

But at 1,533 words and counting, what is the point I am trying to make? That due diligence surpasses the importance of talent and meticulous detail? No matter how much I write on the topic of talent, lack of talent, and people who inspire me … the question of whether or not my own talent – as a writer – is still worth anything sticks like peanut butter to the roof of my mouth.

To shut out my invisible audience – my inner critic – and just write whatever comes to mind with literary abandon is easier said than done. Does that make this my downfall? That I think too hard and act far less?

From the ages of four to thirteen, I wrote and illustrated countless short stories and comic books. From the ages of fourteen to eighteen, I wrote a total of five full-length novels. To nobody’s surprise, most, if not all, of the stories I wrote as an adolescent and teenager were total garbage.
But they still matter. They still hold an important place in my growth as a self-published novelist, and I will never, ever, regret their place in my life. For each and every conception, I didn’t care how good or bad the stories were. I found myself deeply involved with the characters and the plots, drawing inspiration from video games and backyard adventures. I enjoyed my craft. And that was what mattered.

As my thirties loom darkly overhead, I feel with each year that passes, inspiration dwindles, and imagination fleets. I am too hung up on structure, on grammar, on finding each which way to avoid the dreaded “ing” and “ly” suffixes … hammered into my head over, and over again by pretentious professors, begrudged editors, and “writers” with nothing to show for it, during my experiences in countless English classes, literary courses, and community writer’s circles.
There is no room for creativity to bloom when one holds himself back by nonsensical rules and regulations of the trade. Rules, as the cliché always goes, are meant to be broken, but I feel they must be broken with intelligent intent.

The first draft is a first draft for a reason. And although I am self aware of the fact that I’m far stronger writer when it comes to revisions … to bash my head wide open over the stress of structuring initial description will be the death of me, and the death of my talent.

It does not matter if I write 1,000 words a day, or 500 words a week. It does not matter what my inner critic says, or what pretentious internet critics say. If I am as dedicated to the life of a progressive writer as I wish to be, that is all that matters, and with that in mind, all I can do is continue to reassure myself and keep the lighter fluid away from the laptop.