Embracing Failure as the Key to Success

Why do you create?

Maybe the answer appears easily to you, always ready and waiting somewhere between the steady rhythm of your heart and the tip of your tongue. To express yourself. To have fun. To share your wisdom with the world. To make a living. Maybe you don’t know, swept and battered by impulses like a body swept out to a vast sea you don’t understand even as it holds you in thrall. To feel. To play. To try.

There’s no right or wrong reason to create, no right or wrong way to go about it. And the answers may change as you discover new facets of your creativity, of yourself. Depending on the reason, perhaps your creativity is a random whim, free of expectation or destination.

But most likely, if you create for any reason that requires some form of completion to fulfill that purpose, then you’ve locked your creativity into a success-failure paradigm—even if it’s as small as whether you sit at your desk for long enough… or not. That paradigm can spell out your creativity’s doom, as far too many can attest, as the annals of creativity guides and motivational posters can lament. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of every aspect of the continuum in between… Even the simplest creative goals can wilt and wither beneath the harsh spotlight of expectation.

So how do you free yourself, and your creativity, from the perils and anxiety of failure?

You embrace it.

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Book Review: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Creativity is one of the most wondrous and mysterious aspects of the human experience. Seemingly unique to us amongst species, it serves no biological purpose in the struggle to survive, and yet it has played a powerful role in human society since long before agriculture or civilization even began. I’ll leave it to sociologists or anthropologists to explain that perhaps it does enhance our survival as a species, but for my own experiences, I will say one thing: I couldn’t live without it.

Both as a consumer and a wannabe artist, I live surrounded by creativity, and my only struggle with it is how to have more. How can I improve my own creativity? How can I live a more successful creative life?

For everyone, creativity is a little bit different—for some, it’s about channeling natural impulses; for others, it’s about chasing after the stubbornly elusive muse; and for the determined realists, it’s about willful discipline and an unromantic slog. Some are filled with creativity and need only the willpower to focus it; others want nothing more than that impulse but have to mine it out of their own depths like an oil drill.

With creativity being such a quixotic and unique experience for all, an authoritative guide to harnessing creativity may seem like a futile exercise—and for some readers, perhaps this one will be just that.

But for this reader? Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert is, well, magical.

Gilbert’s voice is understanding and compassionate as she offers her own opinions and advice on creativity, while always allowing for other voices that may differ—a decidedly un-authoritative approach that I feel is the best way to approach creativity in general. Through a mix of personal anecdotes, some bits of history, and mystical philosophy, Gilbert offers an understanding of creativity that is fluid and open, invoking the powers of the universe at work in ourselves and our ideas. It may be a bit too otherworldly (and potentially hokey) for some, but beyond the spiritual understanding of creativity, I found a lot of encouragement and inspiration in the sense of a bigger picture: a feeling of trust, patience, and acceptance in the trials and frustrations (and fears) of everyday creating.

While it may seem a bit counterintuitive, reading this book made creativity feel small and simple and almost insignificant… which is exactly what I need to feel the freedom to create at will. We’ve all heard it before—no one cares what you’re doing, just put things out there and let whatever happens next happen, failure is a necessary part of the process—but somehow, by tying it to grander forces working through you, by making all of the ups and downs a fluid part of the universe itself, Gilbert makes those old adages feel newly powerful and true (to me, at least).

I don’t necessarily ascribe to everything Gilbert advocates. She’s a major proponent of not relying on your creativity financially, and that’s pretty much my life goal—with that said, I wouldn’t say that I disagree with her, so much as I’m willfully ignoring her very sound advice. And the verdict is not yet in on whether this book will actually change my creative habits for the better, or if it was just an interesting and powerful reading experience.

I’ve read a fair amount of creativity guides (I’d recommend Eric Maisel, Austin Kleon, and these books by Jill Badonsky and Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott); often, reading them is very inspirational but I fall back into my old habits before long. And if you’re looking for specific exercises, this book doesn’t have them (which I don’t mind, seeing as I never do them anyway).  Who’s to say that one’s individual creativity can even be improved or changed by reading someone else’s advice and process anyway? We may be doomed to the bad habits and mental pitfalls that we’ve made for ourselves.

But I also believe that we are the only ones who can help ourselves, too, and that a creative life is an ongoing process that we can make the most of—even if we never control or conquer it. Big Magic reinforced that feeling for me and gave me some new perspectives that I hope transfer to my creativity; even if they don’t, I enjoyed reading the book and would definitely recommend it.

I like the idea that writing loves me back, and that if I open myself to ideas, they will find me (though not without a great deal of work to show them I’m serious). Big Magic is a mix of mysticism and down-to-earth practicality that makes a creative life feel not just rewarding… but possible.

Some days, that’s all I need.

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Book Review: The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson

I’m not sure whether it’s an aspect of my love for the written word or a coincidental interest of its own, but language has always fascinated me. I’ve gone through many phases in my life trying to learn a multitude of languages, most of which fizzled out or faded in time (I don’t even want to think about what I’ve retained—or rather, failed to retain—from my five years of French). There’s always just been something about the sounds of other languages, the different ideas encoded into those foreign sounds, that have drawn me back again and again.

And fairly early on, that extended to probably my nerdiest pursuit—creating languages of my own.

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Happy 2016!!

So, I’m still here, though I missed my usual maudlin (or motivational!) New Years post by a couple days. I hope the start of 2016 brings with it hope and encouragement for all of you–a new year, a new chance to achieve your dreams! I’ve said “This is the year…” since about 1999, but I will always say it again: This is the year. Let’s do this.

Fanfiction continues to be an amazing outlet for my creativity, full of support and enthusiasm and, well, creating. It came into my life when my original work was at a low point, and I plan to keep it in my life as long as I can–even though my original work has to start asserting itself a little more in my creative life. But I will not be ashamed of writing fanfic; in fact, I recommend it to any writers who are struggling with maintaining their engagement and sense of fun (and experimentation!) in their writing. It is still art, and there are so many rewards, even if they’re not financial.

What I am ashamed of is how I’ve let this blog go. My Tumblr blog has provided that outlet for writing and social media, though it’s almost entirely focused on fanfiction and participating in the Arrow fandom community (enter at your own risk; that blog is for fun and fangirling, not for professional behavior). 😉 And as my original writing began to stagnate more and more, I felt less inclined towards posts about tips and tricks that clearly weren’t working for me… or endless whining about the same old problems again and again.

I’m not going to bog down the blog with excuses–or promises I’ll fail to keep. I would like to write more posts on writing when I can, especially as I work to jumpstart my original works, and once again I CAN promise I have not abandoned this blog. But what a not-abandoned, yet not-quite-active blog will look like… I don’t know.

I’m honored if anyone is still following along (or stopping by) in any capacity; I more than understand if no one is. But I’ll still be puttering around here, posting things (more Bad Poetry Fridays, anyone? ;P Just kidding, I wouldn’t do that to you!), and I’m grateful for all of you out there.

Here’s to 2016!!! May it be the ever-elusive “Year.”

– J

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Blog Update

So… did I mention how addicting fanfiction is? 🙂

It’s been a month since I updated, and all I can say is sorry. I’m pretty sure any regular readers have long since moved on, which is perfectly understandable. Anyone who stumbles upon this site or the old posts, I’m grateful to have you–and I have not abandoned this blog.

The issue with a writing blog when you’re struggling to write (or spending all your time writing really fun–but really not ‘career’-focused–fanfic) is that there isn’t much new to say. You also don’t really feel like an authority on writing, and yet another post on the struggles of creativity or writer’s block or finding motivation rings hollow and familiar.

To say that I’m struggling with where I’m at in my life, with the choices I’ve made, with the choices I have to make now… would be an understatement. I’m also at a point where I’m in a bit of a shame spiral about everything on top of that confusion, and it’s… not fun. So fanfiction was fun and I followed helplessly after, even as it sort of digs my pit a little deeper. It’s writing, though, and it’s building some emotional tools I can hopefully bring to my original writing–as long as I get back to my original writing, of course.

Where do I go from here? Well, isn’t that the question of the hour. I don’t know how personal to get with this blog–I don’t imagine anyone’s really interested–but I’ll try and get better about sharing something with anyone out there who’s also on this crazy writing ride. I can’t promise anything, though, so take from that what you will.

I’m appreciative to every single person who stumbles past this site, for however long or whatever reason, so thank you. 🙂 And I will try to be better.

– J

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How Writing Fanfiction Can Make You a Better Writer

A lot of people have talked about the benefits of fanfiction—the lack of gatekeepers to allow beginning writers to dive right in, the built-in audience for support and motivation, the potential for growth and feedback—and all of these are absolutely true.

But there are a few other significant benefits that fanfiction can bring to your original writing, that I have discovered when I recently started writing it again. (For the uninitiated, “fanfiction” is original writing using characters and settings—and potentially plot points—from another source, such as a TV show; it can be as short as a paragraph or as long as an epic, and it is produced for free and shared online, though it has a more complex and interesting history than just this definition; see this post for more if you’re interested.)

  1. It makes writing exercises much more fun.

Many writing books advise writing regularly—many even provide prompts and exercises to guide you. But as much as I love writing, I have never been able to get into this habit; I’ve always aimed for the long projects that take a ton of planning before I feel ready to actually write. And so, when I’m in the brainstorming and planning portions of my process, I don’t write at all.

Fanfiction has changed that. By giving me characters and a world already built to explore (not to mention a supportive audience for even my short pieces), I have been writing every day and using the muscles that otherwise lay dormant. Though this form of writing has no potential for “financial” advantages, it is just as valid for learning and growing as a writer—if not more so, because it crafts a community full of enthusiasm and inspiration that can push your limits and creativity to new frontiers.

  1. It develops your characterization skills.

When you write your own characters, you have to worry about making them interesting, complex, and consistent. When you write someone else’s, you have to worry about all of the same things—but you also have to worry about accuracy, with an audience that already knows these characters (potentially better than you do). If a character says or does something that doesn’t fit, they will know. And that is going to hone your skills better than any original writing could.

You have to match the dialogue style and psychology to the source material, as well as developing that characterization through whatever original scenario you’re putting the characters through. Crafting this balancing act is not easy, but it helps develop the skills of making characters consistently themselves. If you have problems with all of your characters acting and sounding like you, try writing someone else’s characters—matching their speech patterns, thinking about how they acted in the source material. Maybe having someone else’s characterizations as a guideline will help you stop thinking like yourself, and start thinking like someone entirely different—which is one of the greatest gifts that stories can give us.

  1. It builds an emotional skillset for your original work.

This is the one that surprised me the most—and that I think is the most important of all. Fandom can be a safe, sheltered space of creativity for beginners, but it also mimics a lot of the same patterns of production and sharing as original work.

Every time I open a document to start writing out an idea, I have to make that leap—the creative jump into making something from my own mind and trusting that it’s worth it. Sure, fanfiction provides the foundation, but these are still my words and my ideas taking shape…

And waiting to be judged. Every single time I post something, I feel the nerves of putting myself out there—and I have to hit “post” and do it anyway. Is it easier than submitting to an agent? Sure; it’s lower pressure, and it’s obviously much easier and quicker. But the emotions of throwing your soul out to an audience are the same, and the leap of faith it takes to do so is the same bravery (if in miniature).

So you have to learn to write for yourself. Even if no one comments or likes or responds at all, did you still enjoy writing it? Can you reread it and smile? Did you learn something from the process? The more you put yourself out there in this relatively safe space, the more you learn how to put yourself out there in all creative ways. If you are lucky enough to gain an audience, then you have to learn how to deal with the expectations that comes with that.

But the fun of fanfiction is that it is not the hard-edged and difficult world of publishing, so this emotional armor can be built carefully and gently, and you can strengthen your ability to take that leap before you dive into contracts and paychecks and published reviews. There can be dark sides to this world, of course—anonymous internet hate and being completely ignored and disappointing your readers—but those experiences build an important emotional armor as well.

When you can create in the void, when you can savor your creativity for yourself (even if only for yourself), when you can create even in the face of rejection, then you can create anything.

And that’s the first step to being the best writer you can be.

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Developing Ideas: One Path from Idea to Draft

You start with an idea, a glimmer in your eye, a shimmer in the void, a vague sense of maybe… It may be a single image, a lone character, an interesting what if? You poke and prod, squint and twist, and decide it’s worth uncovering from the shadows of the muse’s cave.

Or maybe you don’t have an idea—maybe you just want one. Maybe you stand in the dark, no light to guide you other than the blazing of your own dreams, the desire sharp and pressing on your back, urging you forward. So you grope and crawl and search for something, anything, to follow into the sun.

But how do you take this vague, amorphous, fickle creature and bring it to life? How do you build its roots into the ground so it can stand on its own?

How do you take an idea… and make a book?

This is one way, from unclear start to something potentially real. It may not work for everyone, or every idea, and sometimes the path resembles a hopscotch more than a straight line. But when you’re stumbling in the creative night, every tiny step is one towards dawn.

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