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.

Why Creativity is Exactly (and I Mean EXACTLY) Like Washing a Pig.

In my book Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, I propose that creativity is exactly like washing a pig. Because it’s messy. It has no rules. No clear beginning, middle, or end. It’s kind of a pain in the ass, and when you’re done you’re not sure if the pig is really clean or even why you were washing a pig in the first place.

A fellow professor, Tom Laughlon from the Advertising Department at FSU, agreed that washing a pig might make for a good lab experience in chaos and creativity. I extend my thanks to him and his students for this literalization of my metaphor.

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CREATIVE BRIEF: Wash a pig.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SARAH, JUNIOR ACCOUNT PERSON: Well, this seems obvious … I’ll just say, “Hey Porky, hit the suds.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ASHLEY, ACCOUNT PERSON: Mmmmm, he’s not going in. Are you sure a pool is the right approach?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAD, ART DIRECTOR: Yeah, my friend at Goodby did something like this. He said you just gotta … muscle it in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ASHLEY: (sarcastically) Oh, perfect. See? I told you the pool idea sucked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAD: No, we just gotta figure out how to keep the pig in the pool long enough to… COPYWRITER IN GREEN SHORTS SAYS: Dudes, seriously, what about my idea of feeding him Doritos? NICOLE (ACCOUNT PLANNER): Hey, I know! What if we used the hose …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ASHLEY: Nicole, the hose idea is brill! COPYWRITER: Yeah, but if he gets out of the pool, my Doritos idea might….. JOHN (THE CREATIVE DIRECTOR, ARRIVING LATE, COMES IN FROM THE RIGHT): Hey, I see you guys love my hose idea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TEAM: Yay, the pig is clean and…. No wait. CREATIVE DIRECTOR: I TOLD you Chad’s idea wouldn’t work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE REST OF THE PITCH TEAM ARRIVES. (MEDIA TEAM CONFERENCES IN FROM UPPER PORCH, ON MUTE.) AGENCY PRESIDENT: Client’s in the elevators. Where the hell’s my clean pig?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CREATIVE DIRECTOR, TO COPYWRITER: Dude. You were right about the Doritos. They distract him. COPYWRITER: Let me just massage some of this copy here and….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JUNIOR ACCOUNT PERSON: I just love this -- a clean pig. It’s so counter-intuitive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CUT TO THE PRESENTATION ROOM. AGENCY PRESIDENT: And there you have it, gentlemen. A clean pig. CLIENT: Did I say “pig”? Seriously? I meant to say warthog. Can you guys wash a warthog?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CREATIVE TEAM REACTS WITH THEIR USUAL PROFESSIONALISM.

 

 

 

How To Last in a Tough Business Filled with Rejection.


Distilled from a recent interview on blog radio with the delightful Heidi Ehlers, founder of Camp Black Bag – “The Boot Camp for Your Career.”

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I was in the advertising business for 32 years. To yield that figure in dog years (an appropriate metric for this business), we multiply by by 7. Performing the calculation, I am not surprised to see I was in the business for 244 years.

244 long grinding years.

What makes dog years such an accurate chronometer for life in advertising is the wear-and-tear the business takes on you. Particularly your spirit. Because 100% of everything you create in this business will be second-guessed and 95% of it will die.

Not just die, but killed; murdered actually, usually bludgeoned over its head by a client wielding a chart of some kind. What’s worse is that you’ll be asked to re-solve the same problem you just solved. For 244 years I listened to people asking me, “Can you do it over?”

Often I think we should go into some profession which requires only math. At least when you’re done solving a problem in math, no one comes in and says, “I see you have 2 + 2 equaling 4 … but I’m not crazy about the number 4. Can we have it equal something else?”

It’s a rough business on the sometimes tender creative spirit. So, what are we to do?

Many years ago, I heard this piece of advice: “The first duty of the artist is to survive.” Took me a long time to see how smart that advice was.

The world is not kind to creative people, nor their creative ideas. The world in fact conspires to reject new ideas. Good ideas are usually surrounded at birth by anti-bodies that do not recognize their strange DNA and want them dead.

Given this harsh environment, it is not surprising how often we hear about creative people burning out. And I’m not talking about the piles of dead rocks stars in hotel rooms, the writers eating shotguns, the artists slicing off ears. That’s mental illness and addiction. I’m talking about regular people like you and me who just grow sick of defending their work and finally leave, usually with a parting remark like, “It’s just not as fun as it used to be.”

It seems for creative people to survive, some sort of Kevlar must be laid over the spirit.

What you do to figure out how to care for your spirit, to keep it strong and flexible, that will be up to you. All I can tell you is what helped me.

Cultivate the ability of infinite resignation. Resignation doesn’t mean resigning. It means accepting. It’s about finding a way to be in the fight, but not of the fight. It’s a hard thing to describe and the best description I ever saw was in a book I read in college.

( Looks like I’m gonna get “all deep” on everyone again, so let me just don my clip-on pony tail here and let’s do this. Oh…. and bragging points to anyone who recognizes the book.)

“A man of knowledge knows that his life will be over altogether too soon. He knows that he, as well as everybody else, is not going anywhere; he knows that nothing is more important than anything else. … Under these circumstances his only tie to his fellow men is his controlled folly. Thus a man of knowledge endeavors and sweats and puffs and, if one looks at him, he is just like any ordinary man, except that the folly of his life is under control. Nothing being more important than anything else, a man of knowledge chooses any act and acts it out as if it matters to him. His controlled folly makes him say that what he does matters and makes him act as if it did, and yet he knows that it doesn’t. So when he fulfills his acts, he retreats in peace and whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn’t, it is in no way part of his concern.”