Tag Archives: National Novel Writing Month

Forced Creativity Experiences (Only the Bad and the Ugly)

In my last blog entry, I waxed lovingly about the benefits and the necessary prerequisites to submitting oneself to a Forced Creativity Experience such as the National Novel or Poetry Writing Months in November and April, respectively, and my experience in a songwriting circle that does a similar thing in the musical realm.  I subtitled that entry “the good, the bad, and the ugly” because I thought I could cover them all–but in 1000 words I could only say the positive things.  And that’s just fine–because mostly my experience with these activities has been utterly positive.  But are there pitfalls?  Might there be problems in paradise? How could there be anything negative about the experience of participating in a public or social networking activity that encourages one to be productive and creative, to be doing something that one longs to do?

Well, I experienced a few aspects, that if not downright pitfalls, were at least setbacks significant enough to give me pause.  These are feelings I had along the way that, while perhaps not absolutely “bad” or “ugly,” were essentially negative–and whether these feelings emerged from some inner self-doubt, some personal insecurity, or whether they are truly problems inherent in the experience, it’s difficult for me to say, and I’m sure the verdict has much to do with individual idiosyncrasies than anything else.  Nevertheless, let’s start.

This certainly would be a non-issue if I were participating in NaPoWriMo in total private, writing in my little composition notebook, a poem for each day that may never be seen by anyone.  But I chose to participate officially, which meant that I registered as a participant, created or used an existing website, blogsite, or social network forum to publicly share the results of my labor–not because anyone’s keeping score–but so as to join a community of persons sharing the same writing goals, people who may visit, like, and follow my progress.   So, the public nature of the thing creates some strangeness.

First off, when you are forcing yourself to create under the gun, so to speak, essentially you are publishing for the world your rough draft material–and as any writer knows, rough drafts can be shitty. And because of the forced nature of your output, perhaps, while you may produce a whole heck of a lot more writing than you normally would over the same period of time, your shittiest work might be shittier than usual, as some pieces are squeezed out of you like blood from a stone in order to come in under deadline. Again, not that anyone is keeping score, or that somehow you’ll be penalized, demoted, lose face or any of that if you don’t get a poem done each day–it’s just that some people (yours truly) take the parameters of a poem a day pretty seriously–in the same way that, despite the chagrin of my wife and songwriting partner, I take the six songs in a single day of our songwriting circle very seriously. The results can sometimes be disastrous, and that disaster is published for all comers.  I can think of some benefits of this, too, one being that if you can put your best at the moment out there(which might be your worst), you’ve moved beyond some serious writer insecurities, and that’s got to be a good practice–but I’m supposed to be talking about the bad and the ugly.

Here’s a thing:  I’ve read some pretty stellar poetry from some of my fellow NaPoWriMo participants, but I’ve noticed that none of the published poets I know and consider serious about their art, at least to my knowledge, were partaking of the festivities.  Maybe I’m wrong about that, but if I’m not, what’s that about?  Maybe the pros just don’t need the kickstart.  They’re already cooking on all burners.  Somehow I doubt that. Maybe there is something they find unsavory about publishing work which has not been satisfactorily “finished” or vetted by the usual arbiters of quality.

So, there’s the “I’m-publishing-my-shitty-rough-draft” problem, but there’s another difficulty I thought about, again only as the result of a decision to participate publicly. I experienced a kind of Stat Blip Addiction. It was not enough to get the poem written and published on my blog site; I found myself, more often than I am usually wont to do, checking my stats with a kind of annoying and obsessive regularity.  And I was egged on by more “likes” and new followers than I’ve ever received, even though I’ve had other entries (not poems) that were more widely read.  I became a little embarrassed with myself for being so needy and excited about the approval of my “readership.”

And then, perhaps what’s worse, I found myself at times looking into who some of these people were–which I think is what bloggers are supposed to do anyway–and trying to gauge, through comparison perhaps, why it was that these people, mostly strangers, liked my stuff.  Here’s the most disconcerting part:  when I found people who were following me apparently despite some serious and significant aesthetic or philosophical differences, I found myself second guessing my material or subject matter or creative choices–so as to write poetry that would not “turn off” any of my readers.  This strikes me as a potentially dangerous problem.  I think, for the most part, I avoided the pitfall, that I didn’t find myself writing to please these readers–but perhaps I subconsciously avoided certain material or stylistic choices, maybe I avoided taking some risks that could have made more lively or challenging art.  I guess I mean to say that I recognize that the nature of publishing immediately may have certain bizarre and unfortunate consequences on one’s creative mind.

Hey, despite these concerns of mine, none of which undermined the experience for me, I’m glad I did it and I will likely do it again–maybe with or without the official structure of Novel Writing Month or National Poetry Month.  Maybe poem #31 will show up here some day soon, or maybe, not in November when I am in the throws of a new school year, but perhaps in July, a draft of a novel might be written–although I doubt that I’ll do that publicly.  Meanwhile, my wife and I will keep writing six songs on a single day of every month and “publish” those songs to our circle of musician friends. Despite my hesitations after the fact, Forced Creativity Experiences will ensue–and there will continue to be much rejoicing.

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Forced Creativity Experiences (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly)

April concludes and the new month begins with my successful participation in the National Poetry Month challenge of writing a poem a day for 30 days.  I’m happy to say that I missed not a single day and that all 30 poems are posted here at michaeljarmer.com for your reading pleasure.  I thought I would take a few moments here at the end of that process to take stock, to reflect on some key observations, and to speak generally about the strategy of these kinds of Forced Creativity Experiences, the good, bad, and the ugly.

Mostly, it’s good.  If there is a creative thing one wishes to be doing and one is in constant turmoil about  NOT doing that thing enough or at all, a Forced Creativity Experience is a good strategy.  I think National Novel Writing Month in November and National Poetry Writing Month in April are simply about kickstarting that impulse.  And, it seems to me, only four conditions are required. First, a desire to do the thing.  Second, an invitation from the universe to do that thing.  Third, a specific but intensive goal around the thing–to be accomplished over a short period of time. And four, a supportive community in which to do the thing.

NaPoWriMo is not the only Forced Creativity Experience I have encountered or participated in.  On the music front, my wife (my songwriting partner) and I have participated since 2004 in a kind of power-songwriting circle called Veronica Lodge, wherein we commit a single day of each month of the year to writing, recording, and mixing SIX new tunes. Six new tunes in a single day, once a month, since 2004 has yielded us over 500 new songs.  Before our participation in this Forced Creativity Experience, we would have been lucky to write ten new songs in a single year.   And becoming parents in 2005 was likely to inhibit our output even further. This thing worked wonders for us.  Desire + Invitation + Specific goal over short period + Supportive Community.

Anyone who ever takes a creative writing class because they want to is having such an experience–and as a young English major I took as many of those babies as my schedule and my degree would allow.  And, too, anyone who goes into a writing program of any kind is also willingly participating in a Forced Creativity Experience–and that impulse got me motivated to enroll and finish an MFA program in fiction writing.  But these things cost a lot of money, and then once the classes are over and a degree is won  –then what?  Especially when the rigors of a career and family life take hold–how does one find the motivation and time to write?  And for those of us who are similarly compelled, what are the consequences of not writing? Writer’s Groups can work for a time. I’ve been involved in a few–all of which forced out some productivity, but all of which fizzled eventually–some after a pretty good run, others not so much. I think Writer’s Groups often fizzle because they lack perhaps that third criteria that I have arbitrarily invented–they lack specific and intensive goals and they tend to go on and on and on.

Only recently have I become aware of such a thing as the November National Novel Writing Month or the poetry equivalent in April. These are both wonderful developments–but as much as I would like to be able to write a complete draft of a novel in a single month–I could not see how it would be possible to write 2.000 words every day for thirty days. I’ve got some fathering and husbanding to do, and my part of the housework to finish, and a full time job, and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.  It’s just not in the cards, especially in November, for crying out loud. But poetry! (and again, I don’t want to offend my friends who are serious poets, because I have a hunch that they work a hell of a lot longer and harder on their craft than I worked on my 30 little poems). Poetry can be written daily–poems can be finished, or at least drafted, in a single sitting.

Six songs, or 2,000 words, or a single poem.  Whatever floats your boat; all of these activities designed to enhance creative output have these things in common: they depend on a desire for productivity, they come with a kind of public invitation, they have a specific, intensive, time sensitive goal attached to them, and they all, perhaps most impressively, surround the participant in a supportive community of others who are engaged in the same process.

I’d like to close with some comments about this supportive community.  Unlike in a class, or in a program or workshop, where conflicting pedagogies, artistic temperaments, and pure ego can sometimes get in the way or undermine creativity and confidence, I find that in our songwriting circle and in my NaPoWriMo experience, it is never about receiving “feedback” or “critique” or even the euphemism of “contructive criticism.”  It is only about encouragement along the way and celebration in the face of completing the task.  It’s just a big ol’ love fest.  And it frees people up to do what they need to do, to make their art without fear and without thought of pleasing others or reaching some critical acceptance or approval.  I don’t mean to say that critique is never valuable–only that during the initial creative process of making new stuff, it’s detrimental. What we need instead is a space to work, some cheering from the sidelines, and at the end, after our 30 poems or 6 songs or draft of a novel, some appreciative nods and smiles.  Maybe a thumbs up.

I realize I haven’t said anything about the bad or the ugly side of a Forced Creativity Experience.  Maybe that’s a question for a future blog entry–but right now, even though I could probably think of a couple items, I’m tired, happy, and last night’s episodes of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report await me somewhere in cyberspace.

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#10: Your Dumb Smart Phone

cellphoneThe assignment today was to write an “un-love” poem. The Smiths come to mind, for so many reasons, but in particular the lyric, “I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday” from the Strangeways, Here We Come album. Morrissey was/is the king of the “un-love” song. Sure, I can do that, I thought. And I started thinking about all the things I un-love, and it didn’t take very long, because the subject of my “un-love” poem today is a thing I un-love more than almost anything in the world, or at least, the thing that most annoys me: excessive, obsessive, chronically habitual cell phone usage. What follows is my tenth poem in celebration of National Poetry Writing Month.

Your Dumb Smart Phone

Turn it off.
Put it away.
Be here, now.
That thing in your hands, that thing
you caress and cradle against your cheek
like a lover, is killing you, both literally
and figuratively. What’s the report, people?
Distracted drivers die and kill,
sometimes they die and kill at the same time.
That’s clear. It’s statistically true.
What’s more, not deadly but infuriating,
is that being in the presence of someone
who is constantly looking at a screen
that is nowhere near one’s proximity,
makes one feel ignored,
unimportant, insignificant, disregarded,
snubbed, like one is in the presence of a crack addict.
My theory is this: If you can’t go several hours
without receiving or sending a text, or an instagram,
or a pintarest, or a flipping tweet,
checking or posting on faceplant, you are toast.
You’re a ghost. You’re not even in this space.
And you are depriving yourself of life-giving oxygen,
of anything that might happen in your actual sphere
of existence: a smile, a kind word, an interesting thought,
a provocative question, the physical community
of family and friends and peers and mentors.
Whatever it was, you missed it
and it will never happen again.
Be here, now.
Put it away.
Turn it off.

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Of The End of Winter Break and a Bunch of Other Of

Sunday, January 6, the end of Winter Break in the school district for which I work.  Always mixed feelings about the end of any lengthy break from teaching. There’s some dread about having to get up and work hard again, always.  And there’s a sense of discombobulation and confusion about what it was we were doing before this two week interruption and how again were we supposed to get back to business.  But there’s also a sense of longing again for the normal rhythm of the school day and the five day work week, for mostly positive interactions with colleagues whose company I sincerely enjoy and miss, and for my students who, because there are just so damn many of them, guarantee always that no day will be the same as the last day.

It’s been a productive little break for me, but in unexpected ways.  I’ve been writing like a fiend.  This will be my eighth blog entry in two weeks time–nine, if I decide to publish the really weird one I wrote about prepositions.  I wrote almost 2,000 words toward a new novel.  I decided to participate this January in an off-shoot bastard child of National Novel Writing Month, January Novel Revision Month–which for me, will  be less like revision and more like drafting, but without the kind of hard core goal of 50,000 words in a single month. I have made for myself a goal of 20,000 words.  We’ll see about that once the work week kicks up again.  So, this productivity has come with some costs.  I feel selfish. We haven’t done very many things as a family this break.  I read only about 70 pages into one book by Andrew Pham called The Eaves of Heaven and played around a lot in The Onion Book of Known Knowledge.  We saw The Hobbit. I didn’t see very many friends. Didn’t make any progress on the new Here Comes Everybody recording–which I fantasized about finishing over the break.

Productivity seems to be always a kind of balancing act and all the things I’d like to get done during a break away from teaching get thrown into a big sack and tossed around and dumped out and always some things get done, maybe even some really impressive things get done, like nine blog entries and 2,000 words of fiction, but nevertheless, I feel somehow disappointed.  It’s a personal problem, I know.   

And the project to enlist subject matter help for blog entries from readers and friends has been fascinating and inspiring.  I may keep going with this, but I like the idea of this blog entry being a kind of conclusion to that particular project–which is a bit of a problem, because I got lots of subject matter suggestions that I have yet had an opportunity to tackle, a whole bunch of other OF essays that I did not get to write. So, perhaps, in conclusion, it might be fun to tackle a bunch of those in short form–the aphoristic OF essay.

Of Aging:  I’ve been thinking about this one a lot and have come to the conclusion finally that there’s not a lot of good to say about it.  With age comes wisdom and with wisdom comes ambiguity and with ambiguity comes complexity and confusion, pain and suffering.

Of Sanguinity:  Despite that fact that aging is not good for anyone, at least physically, there are always things to be happy about.

Of Textbooks:  except textbooks.

Of Eternity:  We are blips in space and time.

Of Milk:  I hate those posters of celebrities with milk mustachios.  They seem somehow obscene.  And I hate the grammar problem there, also.  No, I don’t got milk.  I don’t have any milk.  Or, if I do got milk, I have it.  I have milk.  But that’s no good either.  I am drinking milk in this moment.  Or, yes, there is milk in the fridge and I can drink it if I choose.  Otherwise, outside of my aversion to this particular ad campaign, I am totally in favor of milk, enjoy it on cereal, appreciate its contribution over the years to the health of my bones, and recommend it to young people everywhere.  And I’m fascinated by the thought of the first human being to ever drink the stuff or suggest drinking it to others.

Of Beer:  I love beer.  Last night I had a really great one, aged in bourbon barrels, served in a brandy snifter.  I love bourbon and brandy and beer.

Of Good That Comes From Vice:  Good things come from drinking beer.  But in particular, with this one, I was thinking about how much blog writing I finished in my efforts to procrastinate the writing of fiction.

Of Sincerity:  This one fascinates me.  Especially as a teacher, or as an artist, there are a bizillion opportunities to tell people what you think of them and their work.  I find it difficult to be sincere and positive all of the time.  Sincere negativity, while it’s honest,  is not always helpful because it has the potential to hurt.  But I would rather say nothing than to say something positive when I don’t mean it. And I often find myself NOT responding when students say stupid things–and I know sometimes they perceive that as negative response.  Did I just say that sometimes students say stupid things?  That was a moment of sincerity.  They really do sometimes say stupid things.  But I would never say to a student, “that was a stupid thing to say.”  Is that, then, insincerity?  Not exactly.  Do you see the problem? I guess you’re not being insincere just because you don’t speak out loud what you honestly feel–out of respect, decorum, or common courtesy.  That’s just about being in the world and not making enemies and trying to be kind as often as you can without lying to people.

Of Strange Phobias:  I have little first hand knowledge of this, but I can imagine all kinds of interesting things of which to be afraid: bean bags, Scotch tape, post-it notes, music, flowers, cute puppies, dust motes, light, sugar, pencils, insert any mundane object here.  In a twisted world you could make any of these things scary,  I suppose, and that has to be the answer, right, that people who are afraid of the mundane, or conversely, those who are in love with or who fetishize the mundane, have had some kind of life-twist, biologically or experientially, that has made them respond to particular objects in “strange” or at least unconventional ways.  Of this one, someone should write a book.  I’m 99% sure someone already has.

Of Ghosts:  A great song by the 80’s English pop band Japan.  Otherwise, yes, I believe in ghosts–as memories.  I’m haunted on a regular basis by quite a few, thank you very much.

Of Music As Language:  There’s nothing else to say, perhaps, at this juncture, other than, yes, music is a language, universally understood, perhaps, the solution to all of humanity’s problems.  I don’t know if I believe that, but I’d like to.

Of Course:  Yes.  That’s it.  It’s obvious.  It’s true.  I am in complete agreement.  No doubt about it.  Of course.

And in conclusion–Of Gratitude for Good Suggestions for Blog Topics:  thanks to Michelle, Michelle, Mary, Chris, Chris, Kraig, Cary, Jim, Kerstin, Eric, Jeff, Cody, Brandon, Ostin, Don the Geek, and if I’ve forgotten someone I am terribly sorry.

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