Creative Survival

It’s been a long time again, but it’s not been laziness that’s kept me from posting here. Without exaggeration, and without unnecessary detail, I can say that my world imploded. In the space of two days the life I thought I had, vanished. In the months since, I have started from scratch. New home, new job, new friends, new future.

All of us, I’m sure, have occasionally fantasized about picking up, moving on, and starting over. If only I could go somewhere far away, we think. Then I’d be someone new. As though a change of scenery could allow us to throw off our identity like an old coat.

But as William James so memorably put it, even “The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of the old order standing.” Bumping up against that realization can be pretty disheartening, especially if you’re committed to self-improvement.

According to some neuroscientists, over 95% of the thoughts we think each day are the same thoughts we had the day before. In other words, our trains of thought go mostly ‘round the same old track, clickity-clack, clickity-clack. We think in habitual patterns, turning over the same fears, the same hurts, the same if-onlys as the day before, all the while imagining ourselves to be living in the present moment.

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Creativity Paradox

Guest Post: The Creativity Paradox

It’s my great pleasure to welcome Chicago-based author, screenwriter, endurance athlete, and forensic scientist(!), Greg Hickey. Greg has some interesting observations on how creativity can sometimes lead to its own undoing.  Greg is the author of Our Dried Voices, a dystopian fiction novel about what happens when humans no longer need to think and create in order to sustain their lives, and a Finalist for Foreword Reviews‘ 2014 INDIEFAB Science Fiction Book of the Year Award. You can read samples of Our Dried Voices and the rest of his written work on his website  Thanks Greg!


Humanity is moving toward a paradoxical state where our efforts for creative production and problem-solving eventually lead to an environment in which those efforts can be easily neglected. “Creativity is bound up in our ability to find new ways around old problems,” said psychologist Martin Seligman, and throughout human history, creativity has aimed to advance the goals of universal progress and the edification of human civilization, most often by responding to difficulties and challenges faced by humankind. As a species, we have built, cultivated, doctored, analogized and depicted in order to counteract natural elements, hunger, pain, disease and conflict. Even art is typically a response to a specific social condition, an urge to experiment with new materials or a struggle with a particular idea.

Yet we rarely stop to consider our ultimate end for all this instrumental creation. Imagine we one day discover a cure for HIV/AIDS that is completely effective, works rapidly, and can be manufactured at such low cost that we can quickly distribute it to every corner of the globe. That day may not be as far-off as it appears. AIDS, which has contributed to 39 million deaths since the start of the pandemic in the 1980s[i], has been far less devastating than the smallpox virus, which killed between 300 and 500 million people in the 20th century alone[ii]. Yet smallpox was eradicated in 1979, giving us hope for an AIDS cure in the near future. And if we do ever eradicate AIDS, the world’s top virologists may wake from the champagne-soaked stupor of the previous night’s wholly deserved bacchanalia of triumph and relief to find themselves out of a job.

On the surface, the end goal of a painless, challenge-free life might seem ideal. But what would that life really look like?

Consider how you’d spend your time if you got snowed in from work or school.

You’d have the perfect opportunity to build a snowman, write some poetry, practice yoga on your living room floor or learn to cook a new meal. Or, as I suspect many of us might do, you could spend a few extra hours in bed, then recline in your remote-controlled La-Z-Boy and have lunch delivered to your door while you stream reality TV.

It’s no secret our lives have become increasingly intertwined with a host of technologies that eliminate inconveniences and automate mundane tasks. As a result, we are now healthier and safer and live longer than ever before. And thanks to technology, many of us never need worry about parallel parking, orienting oneself in a new city or preparing a meal from scratch. However, an overdependence on such technological systems allows humans the luxury of not developing the skills we would need to employ should those systems ever fail. In terms of this so-called automation paradox, creativity is a double-edged sword. The humans who developed these technologies did so with imagination and skill, and

at its best, technology frees us up to make better use of our creative capacities. Yet it also allows us to neglect those capacities and turn intellectual and skill-based activities over to automation, making us more comfortable and complacent and less creatively motivated.

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Mind Weeds – The Dark Side of Creativity

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m tweaking the focus of this blog to reflect my study of creativity. The more I learn, the more I’m convinced that developing our inherent creativity isn’t just a fun thing to do, it is an absolutely essential part of living a full and rich life.

But just as creativity can create glorious possibilities in all facets of our life, it can also do the opposite. When we misuse our creative powers we can make our lives unnecessarily… horrible. Unfortunately, I’ve had an abundance of first-hand experience with this, both from myself and others – which isn’t surprising, actually, because it’s one of the things that make us human.

As Russ Harris points out in his book The Happiness Trap, “Our minds evolved to help us survive in a world fraught with danger… The number one priority of the primitive human mind was to look our for anything that might harm you and avoid it!”

Psychology and neuroscience (among other disciplines) have demonstrated how future-oriented thinking has allowed our species to thrive. Somewhere along the line hominids developed the ability not just to fight off snakes and lions and tigers (oh my) but to realize that,

If I go wandering in that part of the savannah all by myself at dusk, there’s a good chance some horrible thing will try to make a meal of me.

So they brought spears, or travelled in groups, or made a lot of big scary noises. In other words, they shaped their behaviour to account for possible threats. It was a handy way to stay alive and it was a profound act of creative imagination.

In the modern day, we retain this handy skill. The problem, of course, is that most of us do not live in perpetual mortal danger. Ravenous beasts seldom attack us at the supermarket. And yet, in a multitude of ways, we continue to live as though the world and everyone in it is out to get us.

Again, this isn’t a failing per se. There are good reasons our minds work this way, but as Dan Zadra is credited with saying,

“Worry is a misuse of imagination.”

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The Experience of Creativity

During my “blog-cation” I’ve been busy with a number of projects, including working with my agent to find a home for a biography I wrote (and co-wrote). Happily, that book has now found a home and will be published next year. More details on that soon.

What’s been occupying most of my time, though, is developing a creativity workshop. I’ve been chipping away at this particular mountain for a few years now, not because it’s been difficult, but because there’s soooo much to say. Studying creativity is inspiring and possibly endless. One discovery leads to another, which leads to another and quite often I feel like I’ve bumbled into a kind of magical house of mirrors. It’s amazing and humbling and occasionally brings out the worst in my personality: these toys are so awesome I don’t want to share any of them! Yes, the petulant toddler is alive and well in my brain. Luckily, creativity is one toy store that never closes and never runs out of stock.

I plan on sharing a lot of what I’ve learned about creativity in future posts but today I wanted to attempt to explain an epiphany I had while doing some research:

The point of being alive is to experience being alive.

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The Big Myth

There’s a lot I like about writing. It’s creatively satisfying, it allows me to play day long games of “What if?” and call it being “productive.” Writing lets me pretend I’m someone else so I can try on different viewpoints and new ways of living: Christmas on Mars is nothing like back on Earth! I even enjoy the challenge of mastering a craft that on many days seems hopelessly beyond my reach. And it’s good for me! Study after study after study shows how good writing is for my brain, keeping it healthy and flexible well into old age (assuming, of course, that all my other writerly bad habits don’t destroy me first).

But another thing I like about writing – and one that doesn’t get discussed so much – is that it is a powerful tool for personal development. Writing teaches me lessons about perseverance and problem solving, about tolerance and interpersonal relationships. In short, it makes me a better person.

Case in point: A few days ago I was thinking about the novel I’m currently working on and found myself getting overwhelmed by the number of themes and scenes I’m developing. Although I have an outline in place, I don’t have all the details sorted yet and holding the whole story in my head felt like an impossible task. I was trying to eat the watermelon in one bite.

Of course the only way to write a novel is word by word, beat by beat, scene by scene. If I can just remember that, then the process of writing a novel shrinks to but one small task: writing a sentence.

I quickly realized that this is not just true of writing – it’s true of many, many things in life. So often I avoid doing certain things because they are BIG and OVERWHELMING and I’m tired and would rather troll for free images on Flickr. But actually there are no big tasks, only small ones:

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Stand and Deliver: How to talk without speaking.

It’s been a tumultuous few months – new writing, new projects, a novel underway, protests on the mountain where I live, interviews with media worldwide, kooky criticism from the Premier, Christmas, and even signing with a new agent. A new agent for me, that is. Carolyn herself isn’t new. But she’s not old either. I mean she’s old enough to be an agent but not so old that she reminisces about the days of huge advances and rock star authors. Which were, I must admit, interesting times…

Okay, that’s enough.

Even though there was a point to that, which I’ll return to in a moment. What I was saying before I indulged my “right parenthesis deficit disorder” is that part of the reason I haven’t been blogging is that I’ve been writing other things. Crazy, interesting, and exciting things that I bet you’d love to get your filthy mitts on. And you will. I’ll keep you posted on when, where, and how. For now, just know that my Twitter hashtag is for reals: #amwriting.

Well, except for last weekend.

Because last weekend I was taking a public speaking workshop called Stand, Speak, Soar! That’s right, I actually volunteered to spend two days with knocking knees and a papery mouth. I expected an intensive course on the usual technique-focused stuff: how to engage your audience without hemming and hawing, how to handle distractions, how to avoid looking like a vapid idiot should you completely forget what you’re saying, how to avoid rambling on so long that your audience forgets what it was you were talking about in the first place. (See above mentioned disorder). But this workshop was different because it wasn’t just about technique.

It was about personal power.

Stand, Speak, Soar is a two day active workshop where each participant makes more than thirty speeches to a room full of strangers. Thirty plus speeches, and only a topic to guide you. Sounds like hell, right? That’s because it was. But only the first couple of times. Before long, and to my great surprise, I found that standing up and bullshitting improvising was a rush. I could get up there and actually think up stuff to say – entertaining and insightful stuff. From quantum physics to psychology to hockey to fermenting. People listened. They even laughed and clapped and cheered. Talk about a boost to the self-confidence!

And yes, I lost my train of thought many times over, but that ended up being a good thing because I learned that I can relax and recover. I can rely on my brain to concoct interesting stories and insights on the fly. Even if I’m clueless about the subject I’m supposed to be speaking on, I am able to present my ignorance in a fun and engaging way. How cool is that?

The implications for writing are obvious.

If I can trust myself to address total strangers with poise, awareness, humor, and a modicum of intelligence, surely I can sit down to a computer screen (or notebook) and start talking. This goes back to something I was saying last year: it doesn’t need to be perfect at first. In fact, it shouldn’t be. This is even more true in writing than in public speaking.

In writing, the important thing is to put a bunch of words on the page. Perhaps it’s an adventure story, or a description of breakfast with Aunt Betty. Perhaps it’s a blog post. (Chris!) Whatever you’re writing, the important thing is to get the words tumbling.

Flow is more important than polish.

(Tweet that!)

A friend of mine likens this first draft to a lump of clay. Ugly, misshapen, and nothing like an ashtray. BUT AT LEAST YOU HAVE THE CLAY. You’ve got something to work with.

Think about that for a second.

What would happen if you tried to make a sculpture bit by perfect bit?

Here’s a perfect hand. Just excellent. You can even see the veins and fingernails! And these ears – golly, they’re perfect! Same with these shoulders – every supple muscle vigorous with life!

But paste these masterworks together and you don’t end up with a masterpiece.

You end up with Frankenstein.

Or not even that – because at least Frankenstein was alive. What you’d have is more like a museum of exquisite body parts. Ew.

So yes, public speaking (and writing) can be about personal empowerment. About learning to trust that our efforts don’t always have to be perfect in order for us to succeed. It’s a great lesson for a writer – especially one prone to putting off his blogging efforts because he thinks he doesn’t have time to make it perfect. And I don’t. So here’s my clay. Misshapen perhaps, but whole and living.