High Flying Writing (Without a Net)

I enjoy when pithy sayings impart big knowledge. I like when they get me to think. Most quotes and aphorisms meander in and out of my consciousness. But one quote sticks with me:

“Leap, and the net will appear.”

It’s generally attributed to John Burroughs, but I’ve seen it referenced as a Zen proverb and cited by many writing and spirituality authors. In my moments of writing (and living) clarity, I readily embrace it. Take risks. Breathe through your comfort zone. Try the new. Don’t be afraid of failure. What a lovely, creativity-percolating state of mind!

Unfortunately, I tend to forget it at times of stress or self-doubt. I lose my faith in the universe. I roll up into a tight ball of safety and “the known.” Not only do I not leap, I back away from the edge altogether. When I do this, my writing suffers. I would also assert my living suffers.

If we stay cloistered in a narrow comfort zone constructed of limiting beliefs about our talent and creativity, we never give ourselves the opportunity to grow. We do not explore the invigorating, fertile garden of creativity. We stagnate.

By its nature, creativity is about taking risks. It’s about exploring new ideas, new connections, new perspectives. If we hide in our shell of familiarity, we cannot be creative. And if we aren’t creative, we aren’t writing. We write to express truths. We write to explore the world around us. We write to discover. The way to write with “genuine-ness” is to be a part of the world, not to wall ourselves up from it.

Like most nuggets of profound advice, “leap, and the net will appear” is simple but not easy. Our vestigial lizard brain continually warns us about dangers. It keeps us from putting our hands in the fire or eating that odd-looking berry. It serves us well, thank you very much, by keeping us alive. But writing and creativity–even living a full, rewarding life–is much more than simply staying alive. If that were the case, we’d all be automatons or ants. We are not. We are creative, imaginative, vital beings capable of recognizing fire not only as something to be feared but also as a means to warmth, bread, and shadow puppets. We eat and enjoy blackberries, strawberries, and gooseberries because someone leaped.

“Leap, and the net will appear” means it’s OK to take risks. It’s OK to explore. It’s OK to leave our comfort zone behind because the universe is a supportive, encouraging entity. If we know risk is eliminated from the equation, taking a risk becomes easier. And when we take risks, we grow, explore, and, most importantly, create.

It’s easy to stay locked in our thought shell, writing variations on the same themes and characters we’ve written dozens of times. I know because I do it. I lose sight of leaping–or, more accurately, I lose faith the net will appear. But in my moments of clarity when I run up to the edge and refuse to hesitate, I find my fingers flying over the keyboard or my pen across the paper. I feel light. I feel unstoppable. I feel like I’m writing.

John Caruso
For as long as John can remember, creativity has bubbled through his life. From his days as a young boy recording off-the-cuff "radio plays" on an old Sears portable cassette recorder to starting his own photography business to playing tin whistle in a Pogues/Waterboys cover band to writing two novels in search of a publisher, John has been delighted by all endeavors creative. Even a 20+ year detour into the nine-to-five world of not-for-profit education and outreach couldn't deter him from seeing the beauty in everyday moments and easily-overlooked details. Finding art in the mundane is his daily quest, and one which can produce some extraordinary truths.
Currently, John is teaching creative writing to elementary and high school students, editing a daily newsletter for employees of a major pet food company, and writing his weekly ImPROMPTu posts for the Inked Voices' group of the same name. He's photographing both for art's sake and for commercial ends. He's shooting a second cookbook. And somewhere in the moments in between he's writing a book on "everyday creativity."

Siren Song of The New

I’ve been thinking about the evolution of writing tools over the course of my career. With the dizzying array of programs, apps, and web-sites, writers have unprecedented access to tools, training, and research. Technology has fundamentally changed the way we write. But as anyone who’s read a fairy tail knows, you can’t always trust Leprechauns, Genies, or Rumplestiltskin. Wishes granted aren’t always wishes fulfilled.

I perfectly understand how easy it is to become enamored with shiny new tools and toys while forgetting the grunt work. Whether it’s obsessing over finding the best pen (I’m looking at you Parker Sonnet fountain pen), the best notebook (I love Leuchtturm 1917s!), or the best word processor (hello Scrivener and Ulysses), we are drawn to finding the perfect tool to magically make the act of writing feel more natural.

But as they say when they paraphrase Francis Bacon: Technology is a great servant but a bad master. Don’t let the “magic of the new” rule your writing. Use it wisely. Use it efficiently. But never mistake technology for work.

Back in my typewriter college days I insisted those newfangled computer things were nothing but trouble. I remember Tiffany Corgan losing her entire senior thesis when a thunderstorm knocked out both of recently installed campus computers. Game. Set. Match.

Then a year later, I became acquainted with the office’s old Apple Macintosh at my first job out of school, its glowing monochrome gently ushering me into a new technological future filled with easy corrections and (almost) effortless dot-matrix printing.

Since then, I’ve seen so many iterations of Windows, Macs, and even a few Linuxes. I’ve seen flip phones become proto-smart phones become release after release of iPhones. With every technological stride, with every new piece of hardware, with every software innovation, I bought into the promise of easier writing. However, as is usually the case with tricksters, each next-best-thing makes the elusive pot of gold that much sparkly-er and harder to grab.

While process and mechanics may improve, the simple act of putting one word after another remains constant. This is why technology’s siren song can easily shipwreck us on the rocks. We are seduced into focusing on how the next major release or long-anticipated update will finally be The One to solve our problems. But we are looking at it all wrong. Our problem isn’t how we record our words, but rather how we craft them.

Now before I start hearing words like “Luddite” or “Gutenberg Hater,” I want to say I am not anti-technology. Anything which can free up our mind to spend more effort on stringing words together gets a big thumbs-up from me. But I have to be very conscious to not get swept up in finding the definitive device or app–and the definitive ones after those–at the expense of just sitting down and writing. By all means, make technology your servant. Just don’t let it become your master.

 

John Caruso
For as long as John can remember, creativity has bubbled through his life. From his days as a young boy recording off-the-cuff "radio plays" on an old Sears portable cassette recorder to starting his own photography business to playing tin whistle in a Pogues/Waterboys cover band to writing two novels in search of a publisher, John has been delighted by all endeavors creative. Even a 20+ year detour into the nine-to-five world of not-for-profit education and outreach couldn't deter him from seeing the beauty in everyday moments and easily-overlooked details. Finding art in the mundane is his daily quest, and one which can produce some extraordinary truths.
Currently, John is teaching creative writing to elementary and high school students, editing a daily newsletter for employees of a major pet food company, and writing his weekly ImPROMPTu posts for the Inked Voices' group of the same name. He's photographing both for art's sake and for commercial ends. He's shooting a second cookbook. And somewhere in the moments in between he's writing a book on "everyday creativity."

On Creativity

I participated in a writing workshop a few years back. One of the ice-breaker activities was the assignment: think about creativity. Specifically, we considered these three questions:

  1. In your own words, define creativity.
  2. Where does it come from?
  3. How does it work?

I found this exercise deceptive in it’s simplicity. At first, I figured it would be just some quick answers: a few ham-handed words and done. But the more I mulled over these three questions, the more expansive my answers became. Thoughts percolated as I wrote. They came faster than my sluggish hands could record them. I was in the moment. I was in “the flow.” When I came back to my sense, here’s what I had:

1. In your own words, define creativity

Creativity is the ability to access the inaccessible portions of our consciousness and our subconscious…which together form the huge sandbox in which creativity plays. Creativity synthesizes seemingly unrelated concepts/constructs/ideas into new and cohesive creations which are greater than the sum of their parts.

2. Where does it come from?

Creativity originates in the elusive center of sentience. It comes from one’s awareness of the world (existence) and one’s place within it (individuality). Once this awareness is manifest, creativity is born of the fundamental drive to fashion meaning and order out of the myriad dissociative moments and events that make up the everyday world. As creativity exposes meaning, it flows from the desire to not only shape the world, but also to change it in a unique and meaningful way. It is no wonder that when humans construct myths and religions, one of the most important and fundamental activities of any deity is that of creation.

3. How does it work?

Creativity works by allowing us to see in a way that exists outside of reality. If we think about it, being a creative person means dancing upon that spider web of a line between reality and illusion, between sanity and madness. Taken at its very basic nature, inventing stories is tantamount to imagining a world that doesn’t exist…and then proclaiming it does. In some circles, one might be called “crazy” for saying such a thing. But how do we conjur in such a way? How does creativity allow us dance upon that web? In all its mystery, creativity works by granting us access to the part of our being/essence/mind/spirit (insert your metaphysical construct of choice here) which is normally inaccessible: the part of us that possesses the ability to conceive beyond mundane (read: sentient) perception.

***

So there they are, my snap-shot opinions. Your results may vary. In fact, why not try to see just how varied your results could be? Have a go at working on your own answers to these deceptively simple questions. Once you start unravelling your thoughts, you may be surprised at where they take you.

John Caruso
For as long as John can remember, creativity has bubbled through his life. From his days as a young boy recording off-the-cuff "radio plays" on an old Sears portable cassette recorder to starting his own photography business to playing tin whistle in a Pogues/Waterboys cover band to writing two novels in search of a publisher, John has been delighted by all endeavors creative. Even a 20+ year detour into the nine-to-five world of not-for-profit education and outreach couldn't deter him from seeing the beauty in everyday moments and easily-overlooked details. Finding art in the mundane is his daily quest, and one which can produce some extraordinary truths.
Currently, John is teaching creative writing to elementary and high school students, editing a daily newsletter for employees of a major pet food company, and writing his weekly ImPROMPTu posts for the Inked Voices' group of the same name. He's photographing both for art's sake and for commercial ends. He's shooting a second cookbook. And somewhere in the moments in between he's writing a book on "everyday creativity."

The Word-Nursery

Being a part of the Inked Voices world means being part of a community. The myriad opportunities offered through the website are valuable and engaging. But the most valuable asset is the people. At the core, a writing community- whether online or “in the real world”- is driven by the people who participate. The connections we make, the effort we give, and the trust we establish with other writers all conspire to drive our growth as authors.

As writers, we spend a lot of time alone in our heads. We think. We write. We edit. But for all this alone time, we benefit from sharing our words with others. Enter the critique groups. Critique groups are the nursery for our creative growth, a place where our nascent ideas flourish and where we help others usher their bourgeoning thoughts into creative maturity.

I believe in the power of critiques, both for the critiquer and the critique-ee. When we share our work and let it take those first few tentative steps into the world, we change it. By sharing our evolving work we embark upon an important step. Critiques are an essential tool in allowing our work to flourish. We ask for feedback and opinions. We transform our solitary endeavor into a social one. Through critiques we discover the impact and shortcomings of our budding words. The beauty of a critique group is the wide ranging opinions we receive. And the key word here is “opinions.” One of the missteps of a writer new to critique groups is taking every bit of feedback as law. The feedback is meant as a guide, not a hard edit. We need to read through all the thoughts and suggestions and use what feels right, what makes sense. We expand our repertoire from the inside out.

Alternately, giving a critique is a valuable endeavor. When we read someone else’s work with a critical eye, we simultaneously hone our writing skills. By recognizing plot holes, weak characterizations, and clunky writing in other works we are better able to begin seeing them in our own. We get a feel for new writing styles, approaches, and visions. We expand our repertoire from the outside in.

As members of Inked Voices–or any critique group–we have an amazing resource at our disposal: community. But that resource only works if we use it. So by all means, join a group. Join a few. But once you’ve joined, participate. Submit your work for critiques. Read what other writers feel about your words. Learn from them. But just as important, take the time and effort to read and critique other stories. Take advantage of the word-nursery and allow your stories–and others’–to grow, flourish, and mature.

John Caruso
For as long as John can remember, creativity has bubbled through his life. From his days as a young boy recording off-the-cuff "radio plays" on an old Sears portable cassette recorder to starting his own photography business to playing tin whistle in a Pogues/Waterboys cover band to writing two novels in search of a publisher, John has been delighted by all endeavors creative. Even a 20+ year detour into the nine-to-five world of not-for-profit education and outreach couldn't deter him from seeing the beauty in everyday moments and easily-overlooked details. Finding art in the mundane is his daily quest, and one which can produce some extraordinary truths.
Currently, John is teaching creative writing to elementary and high school students, editing a daily newsletter for employees of a major pet food company, and writing his weekly ImPROMPTu posts for the Inked Voices' group of the same name. He's photographing both for art's sake and for commercial ends. He's shooting a second cookbook. And somewhere in the moments in between he's writing a book on "everyday creativity."