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On Creating: “Hello Problem, Please Sit with Me”

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From Distraction to Focus

We stare at the problem until we can’t think straight. And when blood runs from our ears, then we have just begun.

This quote from a Minneapolis copywriter describes the creative process that drives his role in the industry. What does it take to come up with a creative solution that is beyond the first 5, 10 or 20 thoughts that pop into anyone’s head? What is creativity, anyway, and why should I care?

  • First the bad news: creativity requires deep focus.
  • And now the good news: you are capable of deep focus.
"Look Again: Expanding Feminist Possibilities," Groot Gallery, St. Olaf College

“Look Again: Expanding Feminist Possibilities,” Groot Gallery, St. Olaf College

In our age of near constant distraction, how does anyone slip into the focus-cave? How does anyone keep distraction at bay, apply sustained attention, and lose track of time in the process? It turns out there are solid answers to those questions. Those answers arrive from a mix of personal experience from people who create regularly, from a bit of theory, and then from experimentation with what works for you.

One thing is certain about focus: it can bring a healing wholeness with it. Just ask any person who regularly creates, and hear them talk about “flow” or the zone or getting into that space of just doing it.

Creating is not for the faint of heart. Because to create is to dwell with ambiguity: could be this. Could be that. If you change this piece—or flip the entire story or image—everything looks different and maybe even makes more sense. Very little is defined when creating and, in fact, you are doing your own defining

A group of students and I have turned a corner this week. We’ve gone from feeding the internet with content that builds communities to feeding creativity that can solve real-world problems. And just like when we work different muscles with cardiovascular versus weight training, this move from rapid creation to deep problem-solving wants a different set of brainwaves. We’re moving from intense listening and rapid creation to sitting with a problem and iterating our way out.

One of our bigger tasks is to train ourselves not be satisfied with the first, easy solution. We’ll learn how to bend time and write fast while you still know nothing, and how to lift and separate and how to map your way around a problem and how to start at the top again and again. And how to grind through to get to a better solution.

But all that needs focus.

And focus means not picking your phone up for 60 minutes.

And that is a struggle.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Why Honesty is Catnip for Collaboration

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In Class Today: Here’s Where I Failed

I first encountered “fail faster” in Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody. In that book it started to make sense to me that getting something right was a goal, but perhaps not the first goal. Maybe I saw traces of “fail faster” in The Cluetrain Manifesto. As a writer I knew I had to write many (verily: many, many) drafts before I started to approach the thing I really wanted to say. I also knew that the work of moving toward that thing I wanted to say was built on failure after failure, and that each failure left me with something closer to what I intended. Each step in the work shaped the next step in the work And each step in the work also shaped the one doing the work.

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motivational pictures

In our Social Media Marketing class last week students presented their critique of their community-building activities (we publish content to define and attract the student’s desired target audience). Midway through these presentations I remembered why I love this day so much. There is an honesty to it. Students describe what they’ve used blogs and Twitter and Facebook (and Instagram and Pinterest and Reddit) and other tools to create for the past six weeks. They show successes. They describe failures. They talk about what they would do differently. In some cases they reimagine the entire exercise for themselves and their team. And sometimes I can see the seeds of a much larger purpose. Sometimes it is quite clear that this person’s passion will push them toward building this community for a long, long time.

And then we discuss failure. Truly, these are fascinating moments in the Q&A that follows each presentation. The great news: everyone fails. Not the course, but in building the grand vision they set out to build. Six weeks in they realize how they could have adjusted their purpose, how they could have set more clearly defined metrics to reach very specific goals. Some realize they did not give it their best shot but instead rushed through and sort of wasted their moments of contact with their target audience. Some realized they could make a solid point with 350 words when they came into the class needing at least 1000 words. Some realized their target audience lived over in an odd unlit corner of the Interweb and this other particular tool would have faithfully delivered them to this audience.

The Big Reveal: It isn’t until you try to actually build something real, with real people  and real purposes toward a real end, that you realize life doesn’t not just coalesce around your pet purpose. In fact, this shouting into a crowded, noisy concert hall that is social media must be very deliberate for even the smallest thing to happen. And I mean even the tiniest purpose to move forward.

And as we detail our failures together (I have my own dozens of examples to share), new ideas pop to the surface and classmates who had not talked with each other are now offering ideas and are engaged in the purposes of this other community.

It’s the honesty bit that pulls in collaboration—the telling it like it is. The missing the high mark in a major way that when shared, evokes collaboration rather than pity.

That seems like a solid life lesson to me.

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On Writing: Is This Where The Magic Happens?

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“…and then a cascade of miracles occurs…”

Yesterday I heard myself spinning a tall-tale to a quiet cluster of skeptical students.

as if

as if

I told them of a magical place they can go were writing connects the dots in a mysterious and inexplicable fashion. It is a place you arrive mostly clueless about what will happen next. But then you begin marking a blank page and words form into sentences and dots arrive and connect. The not-knowing of this place takes a bit of courage to sit with, but the payoff of processing your not-knowing is immense.

These were writing students, so many regularly visit this place. Some nodded in agreement. Some stared back blankly, though I suspect this tall-tale was their own experience as well. Some stared blankly refusing to participate no matter what—which is, of course, that great student default-setting.

John Cleese spends his retirement talking about this place (try here or here. And especially here). He characterizes it as more of a time than a place—which I completely agree with. A time away, which becomes a space bordered by time limits. I use timers to get to that place. This place where the magic happens is also called “flow” or “in the zone.” I’m certain you’ve experienced it as well.

For the working writer, I’m convinced that this place is bordered on one side by strategy and analysis and research.  And on the other side is marketing or talking to an editor or pushing “Send.” But in between: this magic layer where creation happens. It’s a place equally daunting and exhilarating.

Is there really such a place?

I believe so—see for yourself.

 

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Is it Better to Sound Smart or to Communicate?

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Please stop me before I commit an act of literature.

We had this discussion in class. A literature student was talking about how writing for social media was different than, say, literature. Popular writing—so our discussion went—is aimed at a different audience (here we picked our way around classist terms), and is not as, well, interesting, as literature. All her other classes required a compacting of ideas into sentences that grew rather long. Sentences that required a fair amount of attention. Sentences that required grappling with theologically heavy terms, or the whimsy of philosophers who felt compelled to make up words for their new ideas. Or writers who committed acts of literature in the most tortured fashion.

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I maintain that writing for social media requires that we let go of jargon and the complex sentences that shout “College!” or “Graduate School!” At our best, our writing is nearly transparent: leading right into the topic without stopping to say “Look at me.” Does that mean we use dumbed down ideas and language? I’ve said no to this several times. Erasing our jargon so smart people from different disciplines can understand us is not the same as dumbing down. And, in fact, when we do the work of translating our tribe’s jargon into regular English, we are poised to find a certain elegance and cadence that sounds more human, more fresh and less like the forced and predictable tribal language.

Respecting the reader is central to this project of communication—this bridge-building activity. If you think the reader is an arse, that comes through in your word choice. If you think the reader cannot be trusted, that shows. If you think the reader is intelligent and can handle the topic in words any human would understand, your reader will know.

One irony of the discussion is that many of the writers we celebrate as having written literature were themselves seeking for the simplest way to say things. Countless writers talk about kill your darlings and omit needless words and how nearly anyone can write to confuse. But the real artist takes a meaningful notion and makes it clear to someone else. And this: we are more likely to say something memorable and possibly even elegant the farther we get from our tribe’s insider language.

Will you commit an act of communication today?

 

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Abscence

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Teaching season is in full swing.

TreeCircle-3-20160202

And all my words are going toward the course.

I’ll be back.

 

Written by kirkistan

February 2, 2016 at 8:37 am

Forget Content Strategists: We need Village Storytellers.

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Begin the Begatting!

“Content strategy” has such a corporate feel to it. Such strategized-promotional-content-puzzle pieces, dreamed up in isolation, will move forward whether or not anyone cares. But here is exactly where strategy and art must date, marry and get busy begatting fecund stories.

No human will be interested otherwise.

No amount of strategizing can actually make that happen. Art must take over. Art connects with emotion. Art is a human meaning-making activity not easily controlled by a corporate agenda. If controlled too-tightly, art quickly becomes something less than art.

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I’m working with a group of writers who need to understand this. Their task is to pull people into the causes they have begun to champion. They will identify their mission and purpose, complete with telling details about their target audiences. They will strategize about content and assemble editorial calendars, but in the end, it is the art of storytelling that has the power to pull anyone forward.

My theory is that strategy works best as a beginning point. You do your best to get a strategy in place, but then you move forward. As a writer, I know from experience that stories and strategies grow up best together. Each talking to the other. That is because the weaving of the story actually makes new strategy elements available (and vice versa). Elements appear that would not be apparent except that the artist has accessed that deep subconscious, chaotic place where connections are made and much foolish talk swirls around very bad ideas before anything worthwhile appears.

Sometimes when I get stuck in the analytical side of strategy, I set it aside to tell stories just to open possibilities. I am not alone in that practice.

There is a push for strategists today. But I would rather work with their more human cousins: story-teller strategists.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

4 Ways to Bring Creativity to Work

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Hint: Creativity is not easily contained

I’ve been reworking priorities for the social media marketing and copywriting classes I start teach again in January. If these are like previous classes (I’ve not yet looked at the rosters), there will be quite a few English majors, juniors and seniors, many of which will be excellent writers. I teach the class in a sort of writing-forward way: we use writing as our primary tool for sorting client brand problems and opportunities. But over the last few years, the copywriting class has morphed from a focus on “copywriter” to “idea writer,” which is a book by Teressa Iezzi that I’ve become very attached to. We use The Idea Writers as a text to help grow our understanding of our task.

My syllabus is mostly intact from last time I taught, but this time it I see four areas where additional emphases are needed. These four areas make it difficult for a student to jump from writing papers for an English professor to writing copy in the world of commerce:TellStudentsThis-3-20151216

  • See: this has to do with trying to get out of your own brain-pan and jumping into someone else’s life situation. Read more: How to Go Out of Your Mind
  • Try: social media, in particular, rewards those who jump in and try stuff—all sorts of stuff. Trying stuff is a way of learning what your audience will listen to, and will respond to, along with understanding the limits of their attention. Yes there are some best practices and some favored tools, but social media is in constant motion.
  • Measure: The goal really is to move the needle, that is, to get a response. Hits, page views—so many of these numbers are really only incidental to engagement. Real engagement looks like a comment or a share or some other solid action in the world. This is debatable, of course, and varies by audience and objective. But social media opens a window to see just what effect our words and ideas can have. Which can also be terribly discouraging for a writer with a message to deliver.
  • Passion: This is the surprise for students, that they can channel a passion about a topic or tool or process into a project for a client. Many think passion and inspiration are ingredients only safely stirred into their own poetry or short stories. It turns out the more you run on inspiration, the more you run with inspiration.
"Inspiration" by Richard Bledsoe

“Inspiration” by Richard Bledsoe

Richard Bledsoe’s interpretation of “Inspiration” is completely right: there is often a point where the idea carries the writer forward, eyes bulging, wishing only to stop.

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Image credit: “Inspiration” by Richard Bledsoe, used with permission

How to Go Out of Your Mind

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Hint: It’s a crazy idea that just might work

Can you ever see from someone else’s point of view?

“No,” some say. We are entirely bound by our own way of seeing. All the world lays before us—all the friends and enemies and acquaintances and mobs, the institutions, the physical world, all the influences, everything that is, was and ever will be (amen)—all of which we perceive from our own vantage point. We fill our brain pan using our eyes, our ears, our sense of touch, our taste buds, our sense of smell.

It’s always me looking out at you.

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There are manufactured instances, though. Huge numbers have already bought Star Wars: The Force Awakens tickets for the very experience of looking out at a favorite world through JJ Abram’s eyes, who happens to be channeling George Lucas’ story-brain. We reread Harry Potter or Tom Sawyer for the joy of seeing from someone else’s perspective.

Stories get us close to seeing from someone else’s eyes.

A primary challenge in teaching copywriting to English students is asking them to see from someone else’s perspective. It’s an invitation to awaken the force (as it were) of caring about someone else’s issues and feeling the weight they feel. And though we see and feel imperfectly, it is enough to begin to engage our imagination. And it is precisely the imagination-engaged that produces satisfying, potentially useful copy that has a chance of meeting some human need.

I want to think that as we age, we become better able to see from someone else’s perspective. But my experience says otherwise: it is all too easy to let my world close in to include only what impacts me directly.

Hard work, it is, to begin to see from someone else’s perspective.

And good work.

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Happily Ever After

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Escape the orbit of your status quo stories

AnaLouise Keating names “status quo stories” as a chief culprit in reinforcing the same old binary direction choices we fall into day after day. In her book Teaching Transformation (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), she details the ways she helps students identify and reflect on all sorts of status quo stories—stories from racial identity to sexuality to our cherished pull-yourself-up-by-your- bootstraps, I-did-it-my-way tales. The stories we tell ourselves have a way of constructing the world we inhabit:

In various ways and to various degrees, we co-create the world we inhabit.

–AnaLouise Keating

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These very stories serve as guiding lights for much of our lives because they signal the direction we should take. But over time the stories can also serve as a sort of tomb, if they go unexamined. Part of that has to do with the custom nature of humanity: we’re not all the same (it turns out) and so we’re not all going in the same direction. And by the way, mass-marketing is heaving its last gasps. So there is good reason to stop and examine the stories that drive us.

Under a microscope, some stories hold up and even blossom with new suggestions that point in solid directions. Others of those stories start to smell like the dead mouse under the stove: rank and yukko. For myself, when I reread Luke’s account of what Jesus actually said, it is full of life (precisely because he points at death, strangely). And then I wonder how faith-stories in the United States have wandered so far into power-hungry, money-hungry, empire-building waters.

Many faith stories from the last several decades stink to high heaven.

Once you start to identify status quo stories, you see them all over the place. And that’s a good thing, because each needs to be examined and given a green light or a red light. As I prepare for teaching writing students, I am on the lookout for new stories that will help them craft a useful writing life full of daily meaning-making.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

7 Questions that Shape Your Art/Work Life

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Please Write this Book: The Freelancer’s Attitude Kit

I’m working out new ways to present the freelance life to college writing students. They are interested in this independent life but not clear about all it entails. They wonder: is there more to it than sitting around in your underwear all day?

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I’d like to present them with a textbook that answers these seven questions. Because these are seven questions that freelancers and other independents continually ask and occasionally even answer. These questions are useful for anyone trying to figure out the relationships between work, craft, art and employment.

  1. How do I balance art, craft and economics? Is it even possible? Because there is stuff I want to do that has no audience. There is stuff I’m less interested in that has a larger audience. And there is stuff I can do to pay the bills, which frankly doesn’t engage me much. I feel less fulfilled when I do that third category of stuff. Then again, I feel pretty fulfilled when I cash the check from that third category. Part of the answer has to do with what your time in life allows. Part of the answer has to do with the economic choices you make.
  2. Is it me or is it you? What does it mean to care for others with my work? Is it possible to use my art or craft or skill to truly look after the needs of another—or perhaps to look after the needs of an organization? One point I’ve made repeatedly to students is that while introspection is one way to sort out who you are—and our creative lore pegs introspection as the main work of writers and artists—there is another way. And that way is finding places and people to work alongside and, well, serve. Sometimes we begin to sort out who we are as we seek to help others. Sometimes our collaborator and our collaborative processes reveal more than we could ever sort when isolated at our desk or easel.WhatIsArt-04302015
  3. What unseen forces are at work? I am a copywriter who also believes that God answers prayer. I am a copywriter who is also comfortable with artists who say the universe provides. My point is that the independent person has a better perspective when convinced there is more going on than what they can muster on their own. For example: every client I called last week said “No.” But then two new calls came in from completely unexpected sources. And these calls said “Yes.” Coincidence? Faith of one kind or another plays a role in this life—especially if a spouse/children/mortgage are part of the picture.
  4. Where does my ladder lean? Aiming for the approval of your boss is not bad, just limited. Bosses change—and sometimes very quickly. Better to climb toward a larger goal. In corporate life, we climb toward this position or that responsibility. In freelance, we climb toward this kind of project or that kind of project. Freelance does not have titles and offices that automatically designate how important you are. Are you ready for that? Freelance depends on intrinsic motivation—the stuff that bubbles out from inside. In fact—it turns out—that corporate life does too. The intrinsically-motivated colleagues are far and away the happiest, because they do the work out of willingness and mission. Just like freelancers.
  5. What do I look like, an entrepreneur? In fact you do, if you are someone who sees a need and starts to figure ways to meet that need. One textbook defines entrepreneur this way:

Entrepreneurship is the process of identifying opportunities for which marketable needs exist and assuming the risk of creating an organization to satisfy them.

–Hatten, Timothy S. Small Business Management, Entrepreneurship and Beyond (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003)

There is risk with the approach: you might fail. It might take a long, long time. This approach requires turning that intrinsic motivation into an engine that chugs along every single day. That can be exhausting, especially when met with a daily chorus of “No.”

  1. What’s sharing go to do with it? Today artists and writers and crafters and tribe members find each other online. Not exclusively, but frequently. Part of the independent life has to do with finding generous ways to talk about your passion. This is not shilling for work, this is giving away good stuff. Good stuff that people can use. It turns out that clients just might find you this way as well
  2. What if people knew how weird I was? That’s right, you are strange. Really strange. But everyone is. Freelance capitalizes on weird by you doing what you do in the way you do it. Freelance is the opposite of cookie-cutter. It is niche-building with much of your weirdness intact (not all, people will run from you).

That’s the book I want to use as a text. Some books I’ve read come close.

What questions shape your work life? Tell me if you’ve read this book.

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Image and dumb sketch credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

September 30, 2015 at 10:13 am

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