Thursday, October 24, 2013

You Need to Disconnect

Maybe it's that I live in a "tech" city where every other person works in an industry that creates an iPhone app or works for Google or Yahoo or Apple or [insert heavyweight tech company here]. Maybe it's that I've simply become more of a recluse and don't go out as often, so when I do, I notice how attached people are to their handheld devices. Maybe I've just been a Luddite this entire time and didn't realize it. There was a period of four or five years where I didn't have a cell phone - and it was GLORIOUS.

And honestly, it's gotten to the point where I would laugh and laugh and laugh if I saw someone, eyes and fingers glued to their phone texting like mad, walk into the middle of the street and get smooshed between two city buses. Terrible, I know, but the number of times I've had to swerve out of someone's path on the sidewalk because they were too busy to look up is an astoundingly infuriating number.

Earlier this year, I was nearly assaulted outside of my work early in the morning. I had just gotten my coffee and began crossing the street. As I crossed the street, I noticed a man acting erratically. He wasn't dressed as if homeless and he didn't seem to be completely mentally disturbed (you get to having a pretty good barometer for these things in San Francisco), but I loosened the top of my coffee cup regardless. Just in case a'la Jason Bourne. Sure enough, as I walked past him, he tried to swing a rock at my head. Instinctively, my hand went up, splashed him with my coffee, and I bolted.

Now, a year or two prior to this, I had been wearing my headphones while traveling into the office in the mornings. A little music of one's own choosing can certainly make or break how the day goes. But I had given up on that practice, realizing exactly how much of the outer world I was missing by focusing too intently on the music being pumped through my headphones. I heard nothing but the music and this was a bad thing. Eventually, I gave it up and simply started reading a book on the bus...because really, who steals books over iPods or iPhones or e-readers? No one.

This is a little tangential, but remains relevant to my point: disconnect. Do it for a week and see what happens. I frequently deactivate my Facebook account in order to clear my head of the digital clutter (because I'm an ACTIVE user of Facebook). I get so much more done in terms of writing and reading and furthering where I need to be in my life when I'm not wasting my time on social media. I've gotten more writing done with this last period of deactivation than I'd seen in months (part of which is due to writing prompts being sent from my friend Surya). Regardless, put the phones down for an evening. Turn them off when you're at dinner with people. Quit taking pictures of your food and start living in the moment like you actually want to be there. You'll find an enrichment in your life you didn't previously realize and you won't soon forget it.

There's very little your electronic device can do that outweighs the benefits of realizing you are in the middle of living a life. That Facebook notification? It'll still be there when you finally get home. That email from a prospective client? Same deal. We're a people that have gotten so used to getting what we want immediately that we've forgotten how to be patient, how to enjoy the silence between moments of noise. The longest amount of time I deactivated my Facebook for was three months. The first couple of weeks were rough, but the ones Productivity like whoa.

So yourself a favor and disconnect. Do it now. The digital world will still be there when you return and you truly won't have missed anything.

(Plus you'll just end up being far, far less mentally frazzled. Trust me on this one...)


Friday, October 18, 2013

Passion + Creativity = Success

Seems simple enough a concept, no? Too often we find ourselves mired in the nature of trends or hot topics that the general public seems to be obsessed about rather than the ideas and concepts we ourselves are obsessed with and, personally, I usually hate "trends." I shied away from the uproar around the Harry Potter books for a few years until I saw the first movie. Liked it enough that I gave the books a chance and found myself really enjoying the whole world that Rowling had created. I ignored the uproar surrounding "Twilight" and the "50 Shades of Gray" series of books. I read a single page of each of those and wanted to throw the books across the store purely because the writing was absolutely terrible. If I had ever written anything like that and put it up for dissection in my workshop classes, my work would've been eviscerated by my peers and rightly so.

This idea of passion and creativity has been at the forefront of my writerly mind for the last few years. Once I realized that writing is where I wanted to take my life (or at least make the main focus of my future), it became important to me to put out the writing that I wanted and that I wasn't the least bit ashamed of. Maybe this idea sounds obvious, but I've met plenty of people happily willing to reach the status quo without pushing themselves, which, at best, confuses me. I'm not satisfied with simply doing the bare minimum and expecting grand results from that.

For many years, I've been a huge fan of certain television shows that showcase a kind of creativity that can't be bottled up or sold. Shows like "Work of Art" (reviewed by me HERE), "Top Chef," and pretty much anything that Anthony Bourdain involves himself in ("No Reservations," "The Layover," and currently "Parts Unknown").

Despite these shows being "reality" television, there is this undercurrent of idea sewn throughout the fabric of each show. "Work of Art" is simply showcasing the artistic process of people who already make art. "Top Chef" showcases the culinary skills of chefs either up-and-coming or already making waves in the culinary world. Anthony Bourdain, especially in his latest show, does some fantastic cultural analysis in regards to the culinary palette. Of particular note, episode four of the second season when he visits Denmark is the reason I write this entry.

Unlike most episodes, he's not focusing on the country he's visiting...he's focusing on one chef, Rene Redzepi, executive chef at Noma in Copenhagen. Throughout the episode, the idea of exceptionalism (widely panned by most Danes) is made out to be a bad thing in the country; when someone draws attention to themselves intentionally for whatever reason, it's frowned upon. And yet, Chef Redzepi has gone beyond the status quo to grow a restaurant that serves up food that, at first glance, feels foreign and alien in ways that have nothing to do with nationality.

Not only has he unintentionally grown his restaurant to worldwide acclaim, he has a culinary laboratory on a house boat where one (or several) of his employees are constantly pushing the envelope with new ingredients: larvae, mummification processes, insects, rot. Some experiments turn out great results, others turn out lukewarm responses, but Redzepi's philosophy is "never be afraid to fail." This philosophy is made apparent in the way he treats his kitchen staff when allowing them all to make different dishes for all the other kitchen staff to try out and critique. While some executive chefs might take the best dishes and put them on the menu, Redzepi leaves the control of the new dish in the hands of its creator rather than superimposing it upon the vision of his kitchen. The dish is theirs to make and mold. The kitchen is a live and bustling laboratory all its own for new chefs to try out ideas. And this is how we should approach creativity in general - never be afraid to fail; try everything; never discount the foreign simply because it is foreign.

If I've learned nothing else during my short 34 years on this planet, it's that I need to do things on my own terms while still understanding (and remembering) the past that came before me. Without knowing the past, I cannot make my mark on the future in my own distinctive way. Will I ever see massive success? That's up to the future to decide. But until I find the answer to that question, I have to just keep doing things on my own terms and no one else's, otherwise the finished product will ring false and hollow, not only to me, but to the public in general.

I have been blessed to know a small number of people who have been more than happy to give me feedback on my writing experiments. I've also been blessed to have them give me the straight truth rather than sugar-coating their responses. This is absolutely key for an artist of any sort. If the product isn't good, it's better to know that and continue pushing forward to make it better than to sit on some turd of a project assuming it's wonderful. I, personally, will continue giving the same kind of honest response to those that ask me of my opinion as well. I'd rather see a friend fail and struggle and keep trying than one that takes mediocre responses as perfection and settles. Every time.

"If you don't have a clear sense of tradition, then how can you honestly go about reinventing it?"


Monday, October 7, 2013

New Publications & The Value of Prompts

So I've had a couple more pieces published. They aren't nearly as strange as some of the previous ones (and one of them is even shorter than my usual fare), but they're pretty quick reads.

"Puzzle Peace" can be read over at Crack the Spine. It's a digital issue, so you'll have to manually click through the issue to get to it, but it's near the front. You can read that one HERE.

"Sympathetic Magic" has been put up in the "Seven Deadly Sins" issue of Penduline Press's latest publication. You can read it HERE.

My friend Donna Laemmlen also has a piece up in that same issue called "Thank You for Everything," which is a fun piece. It can be read HERE.

*     *     *     *     *

I took a trip to Napa this weekend to stay at my friend Surya and his wife. I find that spending too much time in San Francisco makes me feel claustrophobic, closed in. I feel like a rat simply going through the motions of riding the train into the city, going to work, clocking out at the end of the day, riding the train home, repeat ad nauseum, ad infinitum. There's plenty to do here, don't get me wrong, and it's an incredibly literary city, but I've somehow got this notion that being in San Francisco translates directly to "work" rather than "play."

I took the ferry across the bay (as I tend to do when not roadtripping up there with my friend Carla). One gets pretty fantastic views of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge when heading north up to Vallejo, the city due south of wine country. I normally get reading or writing done during the hour-long ride, but this time I simply listened to music and tried to ease into relax mode.

I haven't written anything new in months and, for a writer, this isn't a good thing. Not for lack of ideas really, but I've been so busy at my day job that I'm simply exhausted by the time I get home and by the time I find myself relaxed enough from the work day to focus on something, it's time for bed.

This isn't really a conducive schedule or frame of mind for good output. So after a weekend of swimming, literary and political discussions, and fantastic food at the Fremont Diner, we stood outside smoking and chatting. He gave me a single word prompt to get me writing. That word was "factory" and I ended up knowing exactly what I wanted to write about within seconds. Perfectly weird and perfectly sensible (sort of), I wrote a good three pages on my Novel Idea app on the boat ride home. It's a piece I'm hoping to return to this evening as I like its current skeletal structure. It needs fattening up of course (it's only a first draft after all), but I think it'll be a pretty good read when it's done. Here's an excerpt for the curious:

Eight factories exist, each with their own sub-wings based on physiology. This final one, the eighth, creates not only toes, but fingers, noses, ears, thick muscled tongues, strips of eyebrow and scalps of hair or non-hair, eyelids, and the complex eyeball (made by the eldest and most experienced of craftsmen). These are the final touches, the accoutrements that turn the Gepetto Corporation's fully fleshed ideas into partial-flesh realities.

Factory 8 is the last in a long line of factories built to create each separate body part. This one in particular is where the toes are made, built of discarded ligament, "bone" made of firm but pliable rubber, skin made of skin donated from those no longer living, topped with toenails made of blended shale (for strength) and abalone (for shine). 

Having said all this, should any of you readers out there want to toss a word or phrase my way to get some new writing out of me, feel free to leave it/them in the comments.