This is what happened when my Labs chased cattle

We had two black labs growing up. They were dumb as rocks and chased after anything that moved: footballs, nerf guns, cars, leaves, deer, cats, shadows, and tails. The sheriff arrived at our doorstep one day and said our dogs had chased some rancher’s cows and they were going to take them away. Apparently it was some kind of canine federal offense to chase cattle and the dogs had to serve the maximum punishment. Probably the death penalty.

My Dad had some friends over at the time doing a baseball fantasy draft back before it was even a thing on the internet. My older brother started crying and threatened to call the cops on these uniformed men who were taking the dogs away. I liked the dogs, but knew if they were gone it’d save me like a millions chores and I wouldn’t have to worry about leaving anything outside to get chewed up. But my brother threw this fit and said he would walk to wherever the dogs were being kept to free them. It embarrassed me in front of all Dad’s friends.

But now I wish I hadn’t been embarrassed. I don’t remember anyone’s face except for my brother’s. I don’t know what I could have done to save the dogs, but I could have done something to help my brother mourn.

It’s just one of those times when I close myself up to everything that’s going on around me. It’s an awareness thing, a selfishness thing, a compassion thing. Does it ever get to a point when what I’m chasing catches up to me? When I’m locked up completely behind my own selfishness and blindness?

This is what writing does for me: it opens locked doors.

The Basic Little Engine of Creativity, the Iron Man Glow-y Heart Thing

This interview with writer/director/comedian Louis C.K. is wonderful and informative on many levels. In a blog post on your website you wrote, “I hope with all my heart that I stay funny.” Is that something that you’re worried about? That this could all fall apart tomorrow, that the skill set you built up could somehow evaporate?

Louis C.K.: The skill set will stay because those are just basically know-how stuff. But the basic little engine, the fucking whatever is, the Iron Man glow-y heart thing… [Laughs.] Creativity.

Louis C.K.: Yeah, that thing. Sure. That could flame out at any second. No idea. I have no reason to be able to count on it. It’s just there. I can do a lot with hard work and no creativity. I could do it. When you really become a professional at this stuff, what’s important is how well you can do when you’re not inspired. If that’s still workable, then you have a career.


Revel in the Process and you’re more likely to make it to the finishing line

Nothing is ever completely abandoned.

I become discouraged from projects without much discouragement. I make lofty long term goals and remind myself of them to stay motivated. But I still get so discouraged. I learned I’m going about it all wrong. These scientists concluded,

External rewards can backfire. Offer a child treats for making pretty drawings and whereas they used to scribble away for the sheer joy of it, now they’ll only put pen to paper for that candy you promised. The difference here is that Fishbach and Choi believe that our intrinsic motivation can be imperilled even without the offer of rewards from a third party. By focusing on the ultimate goals of an activity, we risk destroying our intrinsic motivation all by ourselves…

Visualize your goals to help get yourself started in the first place, but once you’re underway, try to let your long-term mission fade a little into the background. Revel in the process and you’re more likely to make it to the finishing line. (via 99%)

I always thought it’d be the other way around. I focus on having a book finished and published. I don’t even think about it selling well, just published. But my focus should be in the moment of the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the characters, etc.

But what happens when you get stuck, when it’s not any fun, when the present moment sucks and won’t make any progress?

One way to move toward creative thinking (heating the crystal) when your thinking has crystallized is to forget your problem and think about some other unrelated subject. Then conceptually blend the two dissimilar subjects to provoke different thinking patterns in your brain. These new patterns will make new connections which will give you different ways to focus your attention and different ways to interpret what you are focusing on. It is impossible to think of two or more dissimilar subjects, no matter how unrelated, without connections being formed.

Think for a moment about a pinecone. What relationship does a pinecone have with the processes of reading and writing? In France, in 1818, a 9-year-old boy accidentally blinded himself with a hole puncher while helping his father make horse harnesses. A few years later the boy was sitting in the yard thinking about his inability to read and write when a friend handed him a pinecone. He ran his fingers over the cone and noted the tiny differences between the scales. He conceptually blended the feel of different pinecone scales with reading and writing, and realized he could create an alphabet of raised dots on paper so the blind could feel and read what was written with it. In this way, Louis Braille opened up a whole new world for the blind. (via PT)

I did this very thing, started thinking about paintings on iPads and then my brain was making all kinds of connections and metaphors to the main subject on my mind.

What’s your intrinsic motivation?
What has you stuck?

Two redheads with long hair sat in the grass. They both wore green plaid dresses. One was a dude.

I live in downtown Portland with my wife.

I brought her a jacket while she ran an event booth outside. Two redheads with long hair sat in the grass. They both wore green plaid dresses. One was a dude. The dude in the green plaid dress also held up an umbrella to shade his pale skin from the sun. It was 7pm. His hair was a mullet.

Then a guy stepped out of his van blaring music. He started dancing to his music. The van was designed with aliens and ghoulish figures on all sides. The guy wore blue jeans, sandals, and a monkey mask. I thought maybe his wife or girlfriend was sitting in the passengers seat—she looked white faced and embarrassed—but it was just an Elvis mannequin. The sticker on the side window said: God knows this van is on the road.

Maybe I should have taken pictures—I should have taken pictures—but I don’t think the pictures could have fully explained what I’d witnessed.

Calvino said that the proper use of language enables us to approach things seen or unseen with discretion, attention, and caution, with respect for what things seen and unseen communicate without words.

I think the gingers communicated a lot and not just in their plaid skirts and hair-do’s. And the monkey dancer communicated a lot in his unencumbered dancing and artistic flare.

But even if I say the dancing monkey was Extremo the Clown and the redhead in a dress was just some university student named Larry but goes by Laura, there’s still more being said without words.

She fell in love with a Cuban General, had his baby, and then moved home to San Francisco because Cuba was no place to raise a child

I had a fascinating American Literature professor. Her favorite student was a psychology major and she allowed him to speak, but often cutoff anyone else who wanted to talk about meaningless things like symbols which don’t speak to anything at all in a story, so she said. (The image above is an example of a smug psychology student. Just judging everyone.)

She told us about how she fell in love with a Cuban General, having his baby, and then moving home because Cuba was no place to raise a child. She never did say Cuba. I guess it could have been Panama or something similar. But I met her son randomly at a friends house. I didn’t ask him about his biological father. He’d been discussing a trip he took with his adopted father, a doctor, where they volunteered at a clinic in Port au Prince.

But this fascinating professor talked longingly about teaching at a well respected university where she could have longstanding conversations about literature with her adept and well-attuned students. Instead of us–except for the psychology student–Portland students. She was Jewish, an atheist, and adopted two girls from China.

From her I learned about structures and tropes and that Gertrude Stein’s sentences are like branches upon branches.

Of my work she said, “I like your voice, but you need to say more.”

Which was nice because I want my writing voice to be liked and also because I have a little bit of pride for my holding back. And this might be a silly pride because I don’t often write beyond what I think needs to be said. Which isn’t much. I could stop here. I’m fighting myself not to stop here.

I’m an introvert. Whatever that means. But it doesn’t mean I don’t have things to say. It’s just that in order for me to form my thoughts I must write them out first. So writing is often more than just saying what I want to say, it’s also wading through my subconscious to figure out what I feel and believe. I am hidden from myself.

Again, I’m fighting. I feel like I’m through. I don’t have an opinion any more.

Last thought then: writing for me is hard because it often involves a super-concentrated form of thinking mixed with an unknown and hyperactive agent called feeling. I can write when I don’t feel, but it’s often dull and lifeless. But it’s close to impossible for me to write when I don’t concentrate.

So when I’m stuck, when I’m tired and I don’t want to think, I imagine my American Lit professor, turning away from the class and facing that smug psychology student and asking his opinion. And then I start writing. I start saying more. Because I hate smug psychology students who know so much about literature that they don’t major in it. And I also hate when professors condescend.

Another thought, now that I imagine myself in the class again: I wasn’t prepared for American Literature. I needed milk, but I was fed beef. I hadn’t prepared myself, that’s for sure, but I didn’t know how to prepare. I wonder if literature would thrive with more priming. I took every literature and writing class in high school. High-brow literature needs the equivalent of a gateway drug. Maybe that’s what they call Young Adult lit. Or maybe I’ve become smug.

Conversations With My Novel In The Middle Of The Night

Do you have conversations with your book? Jim Behrle does,

Over my bed, or the thing I call my bed which used to be a couch but is kinda now more of a cot, suddenly bathed in an unnatural moonlight, is a seven-foot book with arms and legs. It’s a hardcover with a shiny commercial trade book cover. The title is set in a silvery font that jags and blurs out a little, like frost. It reads: THE COLDEST NIGHT OF THE YEAR. This was the title of a play the Drama Guild of my high school wrote and performed about homeless people for a one-act play competition. We didn’t win, but I always liked that title. I always wanted to use it for a kind of hard-boiled thriller thing. So here it is, looking down at me in the middle of the night as I lie awake worrying about writing it. Except this book is bigger than me and has huge, unblinking “Simpsons”-character eyes. And a vague look of frustrated disgust across its mouth. It even has an arched eyebrow. It lifts a lit cigar to its teeth and squints.

—So how am I coming along?

It even speaks without scare quotes, like one of those soulless characters in a Cormac McCarthy novel. The kind that kill people with like a special silver spork they’ve had made out of the cavity fillings of all their victims.

I’ll never look at my black moleskine notebook the same. And I’ll never turn my back to it  either. Or look it straight in the eye. It’s always judging me.

What’s your book saying?

New Blog Series, but I Need YOUR Help

Do you remember the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards when Taylor Swift was accepting her award and Kanye went on stage and stole the mic from her and ranted about Beyonce’s video being the best of all time?

I’m going to play the part of Taylor Swift, except I’m not accepting any awards, and the stage is, well, my own stage, my blog. But I’m also going to play Kanye. And I’m going to take away the mic from myself and point the attention away from my award winning music video, away from my dashing good looks, away from my poise and charm and multi-platinum selling albums and focus it on writing and creativity. Somewhere Beyonce is shaking her head saying, Oh Ross.

Writing and Creativity

I’ve asked 13 incredibly talented Creatives to share with us what gives them the courage to create.

I’m not asking them to share so I don’t have to do all the work on my own blog. It’s more than that…

Creating is a daunting task. But it’s also full of joy and meaning and mystery.

How do Creatives make the first move, write the first word, fling the first brush stroke, peel back the first layer of clay?

What inspires them, what moves them, what drives them?

These are questions I wrestle with every day. Beginning anew with a blank page or a fresh idea, battling fatigue and weariness and distractions and discouragement and lack of motivation.

I want to know how other Creatives create and about the forces that drive them.

The series will begin in June and continue through August. It’s intended to be a conversation, a meditation, and an inspiration.

But in order for it to be all that, I need YOU!!!

Yes, you wonderful reader. I need you to continue the conversation. My blog here is just the start, but not the end. You have almost a month to work on it, but I’d like you to write a blog post that answers this question: “What gives you courage to create? What’s your doubt? How do you find your first word?”

OK so it’s three questions.

When you write your own blog post that somehow speaks to those questions SEND ME THE LINK and I will share the link with our awesome blogosphere community (but don’t post it until June).

We’re going to spark a new conversation about beginnings.

I’ll have more news about the blog series and these 13 Creatives on Monday, so stay tuned, and get to writing (but keep it secret until June).

These are the Places Where I Write My Book (Video)

Writing in public feels like a performance, but, when we’re dealing with literature, the performance is not what endures

Matt Lombardi, apparently fed up with pretentious writers observes:

“Writing in public feels like a performance, but, when we’re dealing with literature, the performance is not what endures. To put it another way: the final outcome is the performance. I can’t help but assume when I see the coffice-bound writer as one who privileges persona over results.”

I am a coffice-bound (coffee+office) writer almost daily. Sometimes I go back to my coffice a second time in the afternoon. No doubt my teeth (the non-veneer ones) are yellowing. I became a coffice writer while working, the coffee shop was the only place where I could write away from the suffocation of my cubicle. I have Bose headphones that go over my ears and block out most of the sound. I prefer as much comfort and seclusion as I can find during my public writing.

There must be a lot of writers in the world to make these kinds of jokes. Too many of them. My conclusion is I dislike all other writers.

From “How to Write the Great American Novel,”


I’m actually typing this article on a blue Selectric II typewriter in a meadow filled with ducks. I have a very long extension cord. Stop asking so many questions. I’m entirely unclear who was the first hopeful writer who thought the atmosphere at coffee shops was the ideal place to get some work done. It’s loud there and people are having completely awful conversations about their boring lives. (Side note: People having conversations in public: Please make them more interesting! Who told you your lives could be so banal?) Which is not to say I don’t have coffee with me. Coffee is portable. I got my little Dwight Gooden mug and the sounds of birds whose names I don’t know and also I think a little bird crap between my shoulder blades, but I can’t reach back there. One does not paint a masterpiece on a canvas with ketchup already smushed all over it. And it’s not necessary to be in nature to write great. The only great poem I have ever written was written on the Cyclone at Coney Island. It was about God living inside a vending machine and not accepting my wrinkled dollar. It will be in my obituary. What will be in your obituary? “Saffo wrote several middle-of-the-road novels that were fatally flawed for having been written inside a crowded chain coffee shop.”

Lombardi points out Hemingway was most likely responsible for the writer writing in a coffee shop mystique. I’ll have more to say about writing in coffee shops.

But I’d like to know where you write and why?

A writer’s brain is full of little gifts, like a piñata at a birthday party

A writer’s brain is full of little gifts, like a piñata at a birthday party. It’s also full of demons, like a piñata at a birthday party in a mental hospital. The truth is, it’s demons that keep a tortured writer’s spirit alive, not Tootsie Rolls. Sure they’ll give you a tiny burst of energy, but they won’t do squat for your writing. So treat your demons with the respect they deserve, and with enough prescriptions to keep you wearing pants.

From “The Ultimate Guide to Writing Better Than You Do” by Colin Nissan