One of the best pieces of creative advice I was ever given.

Anne Lamott is the author of one of my favorite books on writing – Bird By Bird. The title itself is one of the first lessons Anne gives us, in which she recalls having to write a long report about birds for school. She was daunted by the size of the project and finally in frustration asked her dad, “How am I ever going to write this?!?” And her wise father answered, “Bird by bird, Anne. Bird by bird.”

And so it goes with all of our creative projects, be it writing, art, or film.

Creative projects are daunting. In fact, the more we care about a project, the scarier it is, the larger it begins to loom over the measly 24 available hours in our day. Setting out, we begin to see all the wonderful angles we might explore, all those interesting byroads, and the creative mind, it runs down the road ahead of us, sees other wonderful roads which start to fork away, oh wow, they go in all directions, they multiply, they go fractal, kaleidoscopic and … we freeze. We tighten up and pull back.

This is when resistance to writing usually kicks in. Happens to me all the time. In fact, the way I procrastinate is to “do research.” Well, gathering material and backstory may, in fact, be an essential part of the problem-solving process, but I use it as a crutch or, rather, a hidey-hole.

“I can’t possibly begin to write this! Don’t you see how MUCH there is I don’t know?”

Recognizing that we are indeed resisting work is the first step. So we take a deep adult breath and tell ourselves, “It’s time to start, dear.”

Start … okay. Fine, start … but how? This big-ass project? It’s still here, spilled all over my desktop, its file folders obliterating the once serene screen-saver picture of the lake, the lake I’m never going to sit next to because of this damn project.  Fine! I’ll start! But where? Where do I start?

And again, Ms. Lamott comes to our rescue with another piece of calm and loving advice.

“Start from where you are.”

Wow.

When you think about it, how can we start anywhere else? We have to start from here. And yet most of us want to somehow maaaaybe just think our way down the road a piece, not far, you know maybe start mapping out the journey, just sorta get a grip on this dang thing, maybe also get the 30,000-foot view of all the different roads and, dammit, LET’S SOLVE THE WHOLE STINKIN’ THING RIGHT NOW! And again, our mental wagon train grinds to a halt before we even start west.

“Start from where you are.”

So, this is the piece of advice I have most loved. I remember using it recently while writing a book. A book seems pretty daunting, no? Well, it was for me. There it sat in my computer, non-existent, completely unwritten, with different chapters all screaming for immediate attention.

The thing is, there was one scene I’d recently been thinking about. I couldn’t wait to write this particular scene but the problem was this scene was from smack dab in the middle of the story. I can’t start there. Can I?

And I did.  I started exactly there. This scene, from waaaaay in the middle of the story, was the part I was most excited about writing, which made it exactly the right place for me to pick up the big project. I could worry about the opening chapters later. I could worry about the end later. But simply by picking up this one part that interested me, I was able to keep at it, to stay bent over my keyboard for the longest time; and enjoy doing it.

Thanks, Anne. And now I pass it on to you guys. See that part of your big project that’s the most interesting piece? Start there.

Airing Olympic-themed Commercials Versus Putting your Marketing Budget in the Toilet – A Comparison

Over the course of my 33 years in advertising, I must’ve been handed a hundred “program ads” to write – you know, the kind of ad a company runs in an event program to express support for, say, the dizzying Everest of achievement of the local curling squad.

As a junior writer on such assignments, the first thing I did (after rolling my eyes) was look for some flimsy connection between my client’s product and whatever sport they were currently wasting money on.

 Football fans: Don’t pass up our low-interest checking account. No penalties and we’ll never hike the fee.

(Oh, I was a clever one, let me tell you.)

As my abilities improved, I managed to create ads that – though a bit more conceptual – were still basically a soccer mom posing as an ad.  (Who cares that Twin Cities Federal supports the Vikings?? Seriously? Does anybody care?)

Think it through, people. If you go to the trouble to make an Olympic spot with a swimmer swimming or a gymnast gymming, congrats, you’ve created background wallpaper made out of stock images printed in invisible ink on Saran Wrap; flimsy, without substance, boring, completely non-existent, and a waste of money.

(“Honey! Get in here!! There’s a commercial that’s got Michael Phelps swimming in slow motion, determination in his eyes, and who knows where this commercial is goin’? Will it be about excellence? Teamwork? Man, it could be ANYTHING!!)

Nowadays I am of the opinion that saddling a commercial with some sports theme – particularly one every other sponsor is using – is essentially shrouding your client in full camo and face paint; breaking the oldest rule in the book, the zig-when-they-zag one.

But, hey, wait a minute.

Perhaps there is some kind of competition going on? One I don’t know about – a competition where companies compete to see if their covert Navy-Seal-of-a-commercial can make it into and then out of America’s living rooms without anyone noticing a thing. If so, damn!, you got me guys! These spots are in-fuckin’-visible.

Wow. Okay, now that I’m onto your game, I have another idea. For the next Winter Olympics, all the on-screen actors oughta wear those white gilli suits, you know, the kind those cool sniper guys wear? The dudes would be Totes Inviz.

Just make sure you cover up the brand name on the gilli suits or you could accidentally end up selling something.

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NOTE: Just got a reply from a reader named Deven Nongbri who said, “Hey, I disagree. I loved those P&G ‘Mom’ commercials, with the moms watching the memories of their little kids in those Olympic settings.” Deven is dead right. One point for Dev. Still, can I argue that the Mom spot is the exception that proves the rule? Or maybe, like I’ve often said, rules are made to be broken. In any case, one for the Devster.