Geetanjali Mukherjee

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Don’t Learn From Others In Your Field: The Hermit and The Apprentice

This is going to sound like very strange advice, and goes against lots of advice that is scattered across the internet, but I’m going to say it anyway: you should not try to learn from others in your field. In fact, you should go out of your way to avoid them altogether.

Ok, I will clarify my extraordinary statement: you should not learn from others in your field in certain circumstances. What are they? Keep reading below.

The Hermit

We have all experienced this scenario – you read about someone who has written books in the same genre you are currently writing your first manuscript in, and she has already topped the bestseller charts, along with getting recommendations from everyone you admire, with exhortations of how brilliant and original her work is. You shut down the laptop and lie down on your bed – thinking how futile it all is – what is the point of toiling away at this rubbish manuscript when it will never get published, never be brilliant, never be endorsed by Stephen King? You put away your manuscript, not turning to look at it for months, utterly disheartened.

This is why you must adopt the mind-set of the Hermit, at any time when the existence of your work is threatened. Harsh judgment, even from ourselves, can kill our creative spirit and prevent us from reaching our own potential, whatever that may be.

So I suggest a self-imposed break from reading about those in your field while you are working on creating the scaffolding of your work – lest you give up or feel tempted to take the safe, easy path, thus guaranteeing a rotten framework. If you are writing a mystery novel, by all means read non-fiction or romance novels, but stay away from writer’s interviews or writer blogs. You don’t want to stumble on a guest post by a bestselling writer on how she wrote her novel in 3 weeks while looking after her newborn baby. It will just make you miserable.

Invest your limited energy and resources into fleshing out your novel or play or app, and don’t let your peers’ multi-million dollar deals sway you. Become a hermit, stay away from any news or articles that could destroy your burning desire to work at your art.

The Apprentice

I can hear your protests – surely hiding like an ostrich will not help our careers, don’t we have to network, shouldn’t I be learning tips from those successful in my field? Yes, its true we have a lot to learn from our peers and betters. And there is a stage for that – when not only will you learn from others, but you have full permission to spend hours on Fast Company / Writer’s Digest / Lifehacker researching the apps and work habits of the leading lights in your field.

That stage is the revision stage. Whether you just wrote a screenplay or created an app, once you have put the basic parts down, you need to revise. And this is when you will benefit most from external input. Maybe you can get tips to improve your dialogue. Or ideas on making your product more user-friendly. With something concrete in hand, when you read about your peers / betters succeeding, there is less envy and more “how-can-I-do-that-too” going on. You feel inspired to go back to your creation, maybe having gained a fresh perspective – which is really crucial at this stage. However, doing this when you have yet to complete your book or app, you are much more likely to give up in frustration seeing all the ways your precious idea-baby is lacking.

So to recap – if you are still in the throes of putting together your first draft, turn off Internet Explorer, open up your project and get going. Don’t look left or right – till you have something that can be improved, that can be tweaked. Don’t think about the prizes and book sales others may be getting, or how badly or well your work will be perceived.

Once you have something to work with, become a sponge and soak up all the knowledge you can. Apprentice yourself to anyone you admire – learning from their work habits or their outputs, and go back to your own creation and see how you can make it better.

I’m off to be a hermit myself (though not exactly like the picture below).

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Lessons From Austen On Writing

The Northanger Abbey Paradox

Recently I picked up Austen’s Northanger Abbey to re-read it – I think I read it in high school although I really have no recollection of the story. I am ashamed to say this time around I gave up a chapter into it – I found the language very annoying, especially knowing that it was an Austen novel. Now before any rabid Austen fans start sending me threats by email, I want to clarify – I am a huge, huge fan of her work – well some of her work. Pride and Prejudice (P&P)is undoubtedly one of the best novels ever written, and perfect, because not a single sentence is out of place, or does anything other than support the story and provide entertainment. Any editor would be hard-pressed to find a single word to cull from this masterpiece.

I have always read about how we should not judge the works on famous creators simply on the basis of their most famous work, but also compare to their failures, their other work which didn’t do as well. It’s difficult to understand this in abstract, especially as we tend to have a static view of talent – we are always saying of this or the other person, “She is so talented! He is a brilliant writer!” As if that were a steady state phenomenon – you were born brilliant and remained so your whole life. The corollary being of course, that if you haven’t achieved anything of brilliance yet, you were highly unlikely to do so in the future.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

On Living Creatively

Someone reminded me of this quote today, and I thought I would share it. It’s a quote from my Buddhist teacher, Dr. Daisaku Ikeda, on what it means to live creatively (emphasis mine):
You will pass through storms, and you may suffer defeat. The essence of the creative life, however, is to persevere in the face of defeat and to follow the rainbow within your heart. Indulgence and indolence are not creative. Complaints and evasions are cowardly, and corrupt life’s natural tendency towards creation. The person who gives up the fight for creativeness is headed ultimately for the hell that destroys all life.
You must never slacken in your efforts to build new lives for yourselves. Creativeness means pushing open the heavy door to life. This is not an easy struggle. Indeed, it may be the hardest task in the world. For opening the door to your own life is more difficult than opening the door to the mysteries of the universe.
But the act of opening your door vindicates your existence as a human being and makes life worth living. No one is lonelier or unhappier than the person who does not know the pure joy of creating a life for himself. To be human is not merely to stand erect and manifest reason and intellect: to be human in the full sense of the word is to lead a creative life.
This really reminds me why I live the life I do, and why I write this blog – its a manifesto for living the creative life.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Work Through The Pain

All of us have experienced this at one time or another – we feel that we just cannot do the work. There are days when we feel that nothing can induce me to do the work – its too painful.

Pain can be physical or metaphorical. Halfway through a project, when the stakes are higher, when the problems in the prose or plot or composition is evident, but its not evident how to resolve it. When your real life intrudes and you have family, friends, colleagues clamoring for your attention, and working on your side project seems foolish, selfish and just plain wrong. When your favourite TV show is recorded and the pizza has been delivered, and you want to spend the entire evening vegetating on the couch.

Today I am going through my own version of working through the pain. I had set aside a whole glorious day to work on my book – with no household responsibilities for a rare weekend, I knew I had a rare opportunity to put in the hours, especially as I have not been able to make a lot of progress the past few days for various reasons. And out of nowhere, I was hit this morning by the worst toothache I have ever experienced. I have been feeling little twinges over the week, but postponed the dentist appointment as a) I am scared of dentists (who isn’t?), and b) I didn’t think I could afford the interruption to my routine, and decided I would just make the appointment for next week.

Big mistake – because now my whole jaw is throbbing, and I am not even able to isolate the pain. The earliest appointment I can get is Monday morning now. The worst part though is that I was meant to be working – and I faced the possibility of just losing an entire workday.

As I have said elsewhere, that maybe even when you can’t face working all day, you might be able to work fifteen minutes. I told myself that I had to work through the pain, but that I would settle for intervals of 15 minutes of work. I managed to make some progress on my project – not a lot, but at least some. Progress that I wouldn’t have made if I had just written off the whole workday.

Now I am not suggesting that if you’re hurt or sick you should work instead of seeing a doctor. I am just saying that sometimes we are quick to decide that a particular designated chunk of time can’t be used because we are tired, or not motivated, or hurt that our date from last night hasn’t called yet. Maybe it hurts, but it is possible to work through the pain, even if for just fifteen minutes.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Where Do You Get Ideas From?

A lot of interviews with authors and other creative people feature this question – “where do you get your ideas from?" It seems that many people would like to be more creative, would like to write books and screenplays, but suffer from a paucity of ideas, and feel that maybe there is some secret that successful authors are privy to that others are not.

I wanted to debunk this myth and provide some thoughts on this topic.

1. Ideas are not the most important aspect of creation
Most people, me included, feel very excited when they get an idea – the first moments after a flash of inspiration are heady, when you feel on top of the world, you feel brilliant and invincible and like you got a glimpse into the heart of the Universe.

The reality is however, that getting the idea is the easy part. It is executing it that is hard, that takes tremendous discipline and perseverance and development of skill. Execution separates doers from wannabes, it separates the professionals from the amateurs. The real exercise of creativity lies in the daily toiling away at a project till it is as good as you can make it, and then sending it out into the world. 

2. Ideas live in the confluence of diversity
Some people say that their are no original ideas, that we are simply reworking the same concepts over and over. I disagree, but its true that being original can be difficult when it seems everything has been done to death.

There are two ways around this: firstly, being original comes, like Julia Cameron says, from being true to yourself, from delving into your own truth. What unique perspective do you have on the world? How do you see the same events, people, situations differently from those around you? How can you make what’s familiar and everyday to you seem fascinating and alive to someone else? For instance Amy Tan grew up in a Chinese American community where the stories of mothers and daughters clashing over cultural values was commonplace, but the rest of the world was fascinated with her portrayal of everyday women and their stories.

Secondly, an original idea is often the surprising marriage of two unrelated ideas, something that no one thought to put together, but once they are, you wonder how no one thought of it before. Like ice-cream cake. Or putting technology and the ancient Greeks together, in the Hunger Games. You are more likely to come up with an interesting and original idea if you regularly dabble in completely different pursuits, hobbies and interests.

3. Capturing and accessing ideas is crucial
Having the best ideas in the world are of no use if you can’t remember them, or can’t find the piece of paper you scribbled your amazing idea down on. Ideas can come to you anywhere, (I usually get them while walking), and it’s important that you can jot them down and be able to find them again when you need them. There are several ways of capturing your ideas, and you can choose what works for you, as long as you are consistent.

Some people swear by the pen and paper method, and if you are so inclined, you could do with investing in a sturdy Moleskine notebook and a nice pen, and jotting all your ideas in it. Just remember to keep it with you at all times.

For the more technologically minded, with dozens of smartphone apps, you are spoilt for choice with note-taking apps. I am personally a fan of Evernote, as I have written before. The reason I like Evernote for capturing ideas is that you can either create a separate notebook, or simply tag it ‘New Idea’ or something. Its searchable and thus easy to find later. There are plenty of other very good apps for note-taking, the important thing is to find something you like and stick to it, and remember to capture all new ideas in the same place.

Generating ideas is really not that difficult when you realise its simply the first of a long series of steps towards that idea becoming a concrete product or being consumed or used in some way. When you start to take the pressure off, are willing to start small and start simple, and learn to listen for and retain ideas when they present themselves to us, you will soon be inundated with far more ideas that you can find use for.

Let me know in the comments below: where do you get your ideas from? And more importantly, what do you do next?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Patience is a Key Ingredient

Lately I have been feeling sort of ‘blah’. I have been making progress on my current projects, but I’m not happy at the rate, I need to go faster in order to make my deadlines, or at least that’s what I’m fearing. I am feeling sort of listless and annoyed, and any extra things I need to do, or meetings I need to attend are making me even more cranky than usual, more than I have been in a while.

I just sat down to write in my journal and try and figure it out, and then it hit me – I need to learn patience!

Patience has never been my strong suit. I get bored easily, I get annoyed when people don’t respond to important emails quickly enough, or frame their responses succinctly enough for my liking. And this is just in everyday life. I am much much worse when working on a project. I want my collaborators to revert to me right away, I want an instant response to my work when I send it. I don’t tell them that of course, instead I seethe away silently, unable to progress on my next bit of work because I keep hitting the refresh button on my browser to check if they have replied.

Sure there are benefits to being impatient sometimes. I can harness it to get quick progress on important tasks or those that risk getting buried by other more urgent things. I often find if I don’t write a blog post right away once I have an idea, I often won’t get back to it again, which means that I usually write it as soon as I can.

The biggest drawback however, is that creative projects, especially longer-term ones, or those in collaboration with others, require patience in bucket-loads. People will take longer than they say in reverting with comments or their contributions. Sometimes the work will simply stall, and you may find yourself spinning your wheels till you figure out how to get out and move forward. Sometimes you seem to be making no progress whatsoever, only to see two weeks or months down the line how far you have come. All of this requires patience. It requires having faith that as long as you keep putting in the hours, keeping adding paragraphs and brushstrokes and lines of code, you will start to see the big picture emerging, the thing coming together.

Many times we feel we aren’t capable of taking on larger, more ambitious projects – because we lack the talent or the ability we think. That has happened to me very often. Only when I have been pushed to work on projects far beyond my capacity did I realise that what I lacked wasn’t ability but patience. Patience to accept that maybe after hours of working on something, it still doesn’t look at all like it will ever get finished, but after enough days of that, it will start to take shape. Patience to accept that while I am not finished yet, I will one day soon.
Where does this impatience, this straining at the leash come from? I suspect its a lot to do with wanting acknowledgement, and kudos. Like my mom says, almost everything bad comes from our ego. Well our ego wants to be stroked at the end of a hard day of work, but if the end of your project isn’t in sight, you aren’t going to get that ego stroking just yet. What’s worse, you can’t even convincingly report to someone that you are 50% done, or 75%, when it feels like you are just going in circles and not moving forward at all. While this is a common aspect of the creative process, our egos are impatient for the moment we can announce on Twitter – I did it! I completed my book / painting / app!

So maybe the reason for my recent grumpiness is that my poor ego hasn’t had anything to crow about in a while, because I’m knee deep in the middle of my current projects, and my recently completed is still a few months away from publication. Which made me realize that the next skill I will focus on acquiring is patience, given its key role in ensuring that I have the emotional ability to take on larger and more complex projects, projects where things may not go according to plan, and I may find myself spinning my wheels quite a bit, but the end result will be worth it.
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