Happy birthday, Creative Quibble! Thoughts on a year of creative writing

Happy birthday Creative Quibble!

via GIPHY

I can’t believe it’s been a full year since I started this blog. It feels like two or three months ago. It’s true what they say: time flies when you’re having fun!

I started this blog as a place to gather all my sources of inspiration, and to encourage me to actively seek out new ones instead of waiting until I stumble on something on Tumblr or Facebook. On that front, I think it’s been very successful: I’ve read books that I otherwise might not have discovered, examined the shows and movies I watch more critically, and put down some of my better thoughts (if I do say so myself) on writing and storytelling for posterity (and for me to find them later).

But perhaps the most rewarding part of blogging has been the amazing people I’ve gotten a chance to talk to over this past year. Getting to hear from writers, filmmakers, and artists who’ve “made it,” who are living their passions and making it the cornerstone of their lives, is beyond inspiring to me.

The value of creative expression, of creating art in any form, is in its reflection of the world we live in. It’s an urge that comes from our most basic instincts. Our ancient ancestors returned to their caves from the hunt and recreated it on their walls, imbuing it with meaning beyond simply the provision of food. Through artistic expression, everyday work become rituals, which can be examined, critiqued, and changed. To speak to those who are a part of that is a privilege and a pleasure. If that was the only thing I was doing on this blog, I’d be a happy camper.

That’s why I’m looking to interview even more people here on the blog! If you have anyone you think would be a great fit or who you want to hear from, leave me a note in the comments below! Leave your suggestions for books and movies too!

No one can know what the next year will bring. Heck, no one can know what the next ten minutes will bring! But I’m excited and encouraged, and most of all, I’m happy to have you, dear reader, along for the ride!

Link Bank October 2016: Spooky fun facts for Halloween

I’m going to level with you: I’m not a fan of Halloween. The kids are cute, sure, but I never understood why you don’t just buy the candy you want and eat it at home. At least then you’d always get the candy you like!

“Give me the Reese’s! Give them to me or die!”

Clearly, however, the rest of the nation feels very differently. Regardless of whether you love or hate the holiday (is it a holiday if you don’t get the day off?), I guarantee you will be spooked by these fun facts.

25 real facts that make common fears less scary – Cracked

“More people are killed by vending machines than by sharks.”

40 scariest books of the last 200 years – The Lineup

“All of Poe’s poems are scary, but this short story [“The Fall of the House of Usher”] in particular—about a crumbling house whose inhabitants are riddled with anxiety—will give you chills.

(This is true. I read the this story in English class several years ago, and it still haunts me.)

Handy Halloween guide explains how much candy it will take to kill you – The A.V. Club

“You’d probably be throwing up like crazy long before you reach either of those limits, but they still seem weirdly low.”

8 super weird things you didn’t know about Halloween – The Huffington Post

“In some parts of Ireland, people celebrated Halloween by playing romantic fortune-telling games, according to Nicholas Rogers’ “Halloween: From Pagan Ritual To Party Night.” These games allegedly predicted who they’d marry, and when.”

7 weird Halloween facts that will scare the wits out of you – Mirror

“There are all kinds of urban myths about the mean old crone or crazed madman in the tumble-down shack slipping poison or dangerous items into cakes and candy for the unsuspecting cherubs who knock on their door on Halloween. But in reality almost every case of Halloween candy tampering has been performed by a family member.”

Frustrated? Embrace the potential for creativity

Are you familiar with the “group project” memes that have germinated all over the Internet?

Does this one resonate particularly strongly with you?

Via Tumblr
Via Tumblr

If you answered yes to these two questions, boy do I have good news for you!

In a TEDTalk, “Financial Times” columnist and author Tim Harford put forth the idea that frustration actually improves creativity and problem-solving skills.

Using examples from social psychology, rock n’ roll, and the German opera, Harford shows how disrupting factors – the things that trip you up, ruin your work, and complicate your process – are actually helping you think outside the box and do better.

According to Harford, strategic, predictable step-by-step processes can lead you to a dead end. You can only see what’s already there, and if there’s something wrong with your process, you can end up making the same mistakes over and over again. When you introduce an element of randomness, you’re forced to approach things differently, which makes for an end result that is new and different from what you’ve done before.

This isn’t just a theory. In practice, it’s called “oblique strategies” – a group of index cards list disruptive (and frankly annoying) things you can do to create obstacles in the creative process, and you pick one at random and implement it.

Because this whole idea is so counter-intuitive (making things harder makes them better? What?), our natural instinct is to shy away from it. What kind of masochist wants to make the difficult and often emotionally and physically draining task of making something even more complicated?

This is why, Harford says, when life doesn’t supply the randomness, you have to force yourself to find way to throw a wrench into your own plans.

So the next time you get an A+++ on a group project, you’ll know who to thank:

these-guys

You can find Tim Harford’s books on economics and creativity at the Creative Quibble bookstore.

The bizarre world of home improvement television

In case it isn’t already incredibly obvious, I watch a lot of television. What can I say? We get some pretty good channels at our place.

One of the channels we get (which will remain unnamed, lest I anger the Producers That Be) is dedicated to real estate and home renovations. If I had to guess, I’d say that this channel runs around eight different shows at a time. “Different,” however, is a strong word. These shows all run on one of two premises:

  1. A couple are moving to a new city and looking for a home in which to live. Both have very specific requirements for this home which are, more often than not, irreconcilable. A harried real estate agent accomplishes the impossible – finding them a home they both like – by showing them exactly three houses.
  2. An old house, rundown by time and probably weather, having suffered the neglect of man and woman and finally abandoned by the populace, is rescued from obscurity by a kindly, creative couple/siblings/single person determined to give it a new lease on life and on ownership, so that it may once again fulfill its housely destiny as a home for a family of three/five/seven/eleven/etc.

So, eight programs, all based on premise or the other. It is amazing to me that this kind of situation can occur and apparently be very profitable for said channel, although given the fact that there are approximately three separate “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” shows on at any given time, perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised.

And let’s face it, that’s basically what we’re watching, isn’t it? Yes, it’s interesting to see what you can get for your money in Chicago or wherever, or what kind of furniture goes with blue wallpaper, but that’s just a sideshow next to the real entertainment.

Why can't they indeed, Liz Lemon.
Why can’t they indeed, Liz Lemon.

What’s truly entertaining is watching couples bicker about budgets and yard size and “curb appeal,” a term I learned recently. It’s a short window into the relationships, but through it you can glimpse (and snigger) at the power dynamics. You’d think there’s enough conflict on television, but apparently not.

I don't know if these two are married, but they should be.
I don’t know if these two are married, but they should be.

 

Regardless of the whys and hows, it’s obviously a winning formula, because it seems that every time I turn on the television I see an ad for a new show based on the exact same premise. Clearly, this unnamed channel and its army of real estate agents and contractors are raking it in.

It makes you want to get into the real estate industry.

The world of stand-up comedy with director Logan Leistikow

Meet documentary film-maker Logan Leistikow. The Los Angeles-based director has been making movies in the comedy circuit for years, and his latest documentary, “Walton,” chronicles the experience of stand-up comedian Walton Jordan.

Logan Leistikow at the American Idol Press Line.
Logan Leistikow at the American Idol Press Line. Logan was the digital producer at American Idol. 

I connected with Logan via Twitter, and he was nice enough to answer some of my questions about “Walton” and his work in comedy.

Tell me about your background. How did you get into directing? What drew you to the field?
As a kid, I always wanted to do something creative when I grew up. It morphed from being a cartoonist to painter to musician, etc. I just wanted to be an artist. Eventually, the magic of movies drew me in. Star Wars and high concept productions like it made me want to be a blockbuster director. I loved the idea of making my cinematic vision come to life.
 
I actually moved out to Los Angeles with that intention. However, because I was not born into the entertainment industry, I had to find my own pathway in. It just so happens that my first big break was producing Tom Green Live, a comedic celebrity talk show. After that, I very much stayed in the lane of talk/unscripted shows and comedy, if only because that is where my resume took me.
 
I have to say, though, that I have fallen in love with making documentaries. You can capture and create real emotion, tone, and production value on a shoestring budget and with a small crew. This offers ultimate film-making freedom, as well as the adventure of unpredictability and improvisation.
What was the first thing you ever worked on? What was that experience like for you?
Well, I guess the first thing ever was my high school senior video, which was just a ripoff of jackass.
 
In college, my friends and I made some video sketches that went viral and got me featured on IFC, which was pretty cool. One of those videos was also a part of a Yahoo! contest where celebrity judge Tom Green said “These guys should have their own sketch comedy show!”
 
That eventually led to a job at Tom Green Live once I moved out to LA. Getting that gig was surreal. Having heard Tom’s compliment on the Yahoo! show, I applied to work on his talk show. He personally called me on the phone, invited me to lunch, and then showed me his studio and hired me all in the same day. It was a bit overwhelming, but it was just the beginning of my journey.
Tell me about your new documentary, Walton. How did you meet Walton Jordan? Why did you decide to do a documentary about him? And what was the experience like?
Walton is a good friend I have known for years. We met way back in 2007 at a Comedy Garage show. He’s such a sui generis guy with a magnetic personality, he belongs on stage/screen.

 

Poster for "Walter," courtesy Logan Leistikow. Now available on Amazon Prime.
Poster for “Walter,” courtesy Logan Leistikow. Now available on Amazon Prime.
I also wanted to present a homeless person who breaks the mold of what people expect. A lot of us make assumptions about the homeless. Although Walton actually indicates he IS homeless by choice, you can’t help but root for him…even if you would never do that to yourself. It humanizes the homeless.
 
Shooting the documentary with him was so fun and exciting I’m very likely to make more docs about him.
How do you approach a documentary project? Walk me through your process.
Every project comes together differently, but I always search for fascinating people who have a passion. 
 
For the Comedy Garage, I actually attended a show and said to myself “I must make a documentary about this.” It was pure inspiration. I eventually saved up enough money and favors to make it happen. We shot a three camera stand-up show, and interviews leading up to it over a long weekend.
 
Walton, on the other hand, was shot sporadically over a year in our spare time. I edited as we went and I think that really helped the pacing of the piece and told us what shots we had to get next. I also filmed a minidoc called “Trees” that I filmed by myself in one day with no concept until I hit the editing bay.
 
My advice would be to find what you are passionate about and cover that in your own way. Figure out what is logistically practical and use your creativity to make it sing. Do you have a client? Do you have backers? Do you work for a network or news organization? Are you independent? Do you know someone who can help? Everything is a factor, so there is no instruction manual. You have to be dynamic.
Your work seems focused on comedians. Is there a reason for that?
There are two main reasons for this: Comedians have a job of holding a mirror up to society and ultimately that is my goal as well. The comedians I know are the most open and honest people around and that makes for really great interviews.
 
Comedians are also the epitome of freedom of expression and tolerance. Even the squeaky cleanest stand-up comedian you know is exposed to some raunchy humor in their career, whether at open mics or when they open for another comic. They have to tolerate, appreciate, and respect different approaches to humor and different perspectives on endless subjects. The comedy scene in LA is more of a marketplace of ideas than people realize. Its also very diverse.
 
That being said, I also have productions in development that will not be about comedians.
 
What’s your advice to aspiring filmmakers looking for inspiration? What would you say to those looking for backing for their work?
 
When asking for backing, make sure you have your ducks in a row. Be ready for any question, anticipate parts of the pitch that the backer may not like, and pitch for a higher budget while having a plan for a much smaller budget ready. It helps to know your backer personally and appeal to him/her in a personal way. Maybe he/she owns a business that can have product placement in the film. Maybe he/she has a soft spot for animals, so pitch an animal related project. Your creative vision will have to adjust to reality and your planning will have to incorporate what your backer will want.
 
Again, every production comes together differently, but the bottom line is you need to impress your backer with how knowledgeable and prepared you are.
 
Also don’t be afraid to just start working even if no one will back you yet. Remember that films like “Clerks” and “Grey Gardens” had no backers and are now classics. “Walton” also had no backers.
 
As for inspiration: its everywhere. [Ask yourself:] What movie do you want to see that doesn’t exist yet?

Is writer’s block a real thing?

You ever hear yourself talk about why you can’t do something and get this nagging feeling that maybe you’re just making excuses?

That’s how I feel whenever I hear the phrase “writer’s block.” It feels like the kind of thing you say when you just can’t muster the energy or willpower to work – an adult version of “the dog ate my homework” if you will.

Then again, I do experience what I legitimately believe is a sense of obstruction, a lack of inspiration, a feeling like the words are slipping in and out of your consciousness. A mental constipation. Just when you think you finally need to go,  you’re right back where you started from.

Walls and blocks seem to serve as a metaphor for a lot of bowel-movement-related advertising lately.
Walls and blocks seem to serve as a metaphor for a lot of bowel-movement-related advertising lately.

So is writer’s block a real, proper affliction of the mind? A quick Google search (good ole Google – yes you will one day rule us all with a Big Brother-esque dominance, but you will be a gentle and informative master) assures me that writer’s block is real enough that many trusted resources have dedicated time and space to addressing the issue. Purdue OWL, my go-to dispenser of wisdom for matters of APA comma placement, has several suggestions based on why you have writer’s block – you’re too stressed out, you don’t want to write about the topic assigned, you want to write about something without knowing what that something is (this, I assume, is their euphemistic way of saying ‘lazy.’)

In my experience, writer’s block is more likely to happen when you don’t have a clear vision of what you’re doing or where you’re going. That’s not what causes writer’s block though – I think the cause is probably a combination of mood and a lack of interest in a work or lack of belief in it. Those are the things that prevent you from writing at all, that have you staring at a page, having only been able to come up with “BY [NAME].”

[This, in fairness, is how I start all my writing projects. It’s part narcissism, part ease, part “I forget to put my name on an assignment once and got a zero” paranoia.]

When you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, it’s always easier to write. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to know the end, but you know the point. Even if your phrases are stilted and your vocabulary has seemingly shrunk to somehow include only words that would be more suitable for a 40-page treatise on the history of economic theory in Western thought (one of the many pleasant side effects of grad school), you can still write. It may not be particularly good, but it’s there and good can always come later. It’s when you don’t know where you’re going or why you’re writing that even the most creative and original ideas will sit on your page undeveloped and unfulfilled.

What’s a gal to do?

Of course, this is not exactly a breaking development in the understanding of writer’s block – in fact, a book my dad bought me when I was a teenager counselled exactly this: know where you’re going to end up before you start. It’s good advice and one that I should follow more often.

The problem is if you do have a really interesting (I won’t say great since it seems presumptuous, nevertheless feel free to assume it here) idea but you don’t have a vision for where it’s going to go, do you jot it down and then sit on it until you figure it out, or do you work with it to the best of your ability and hope that inspiration strikes eventually? Because when I do the former, I end up with a bunch of promising but unwritten stories, and when I do the latter I get writer’s block.

Writer and author Henneke Duistermaat doesn’t say exactly what I should do in this case, but she does have a lot of advice on how to overcome writer’s block. For her, it’s all about getting out of that routine that can sometimes suck the life out of you. Change where you write, she advises, or even the time of day you sit to write. Switch out your fonts, or hey, even change the color from boring black to intense hot pink. The idea is that change in your surroundings can jumpstart your mind.

James Altucher, who writes some really thought-provoking stuff on LinkedIn, says, “Start with the blood.” Sometimes the most frustrating part about writing is that you know something good is coming up in your plot, but you can’t seem to find your way there yet. So just jump ahead! It’s the kind of thing that would never occur to my linear mind, but it’s genius as far as I’m concerned.

Of course, not all advice is golden, and not all of it will work for everyone. For example, Altucher suggests reading before you start writing, but for me, that just serves to muddle my thoughts and distort my style. I’m a bit of sponge that way. But what I do find helpful is visual inspiration – just scrolling through photos and artwork online can motivate and encourage me. That is what originally motivated me to compile a list of all the websites I go to for inspiration.

So, in conclusion, there exists sufficient evidence to determine that writer’s block is certainly perceived as being very real by many established writers. If nothing else, that should at least comfort those of us who are still amateurs.

What do you do when you have writer’s block? Tell us in the comments!

 

The case for close-ended shows

Does it though? Image by Brandon Martin-Anderson via Flickr.

You, the reader, probably don’t watch a whole lot of Arabic television, but I do. But this not a list of the differences between Arabic and English television shows. That would be too long.

No, this is the case for incorporating one particular aspect of Arabic drama into the world of Western television, and that aspect is the closed ending.

Consider: the most satisfying aspect of a story in any format is that it’s building towards some kind of climax, followed by a winding down to a sensible end. This is story arcs 101, and there’s a reason for that: it works. When you don’t have a specified end, you force the story to continue in ways that are inorganic and ultimately dissatisfying.

Couldn’t be any simpler. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Think about it, how many of your favorite shows ended up going down the tubes after three or four seasons, rehashing old plot-lines and resorting to obnoxious guest characters to force humor and/or drama where none can grow?

Or even worse, how many shows were cancelled after one or two seasons, leaving the dedicated viewer grasping at straws, forced to resort to that dark side of the Internet, fanfiction, in a desperate attempt to gain some form of closure?

Compare that to your average Arabic television drama, which wraps up in quick and easy 30 episodes. This ensures that the show will have a beginning, a middle, and, thankfully, an end. Within that tried and true structure, you have character development, crisis and resolution, and an overall sense of structure. Even when the end is left purposely open, at least you have a sense that the main plot is wrapped up.

There are, of course, many shows that follow a season format, but that’s usually because they cannot, for whatever reason, resolve the major plot points within 30 episodes. At most you’ve got a story that 90 episodes to end. That’s still much less than the average six-season American television show, which at 22 episodes a season is over 120 episodes! That’s not even taking into consideration the fact that a lot of these episodes involve either a) upping the dramatic ante until it reaches previously unheard of levels of insanity (*cough “Grey’s Anatomy” cough*), b) employing ridiculously convoluted plot twists in an attempt to maintain viewer interest (“Pretty Little Liars” is particularly notorious for this), or c) beating the “will they won’t they” drama to death (“Friends” and, increasingly, “New Girl”).

Stop this plot! In the name of proper storytelling structure!

I’m not alone in thinking our shows go on for way too long: more and more new shows are debuting at just 10 episodes in their first season. In an interview with Variety, television producer and the brains behind Parks and Rec, Mike Schur, says, “…there’s more of a sense that shows should have a number of episodes that befits that idea, instead of just, ‘Let’s do as many as we possibly can.'”

It’s a trend that many credit to networks like HBO, AMC, and Starz. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s not enough. The problem is not the number of episodes per season, it’s the number of episodes overall. So I say it’s time to take a page out of the book of Arabic television and commit only to shows that have both a start and an end.

Goodbye show. We knew ye a little too well.

The Quibblerview with photographer Sheri Bigelow

Today I’m very excited to introduce The Quibblerview, an interview series exploring the inspiration, talent, and pure hard work that creative people put into their content. For our first installment, meet photographer Sheri Bigelow.

Sheri is a lifelong photographer who shares her work on her blog, Cuteness, In All It’s Versatility. Her work combines beautiful vistas with unique angles and playful light and shade. I spoke with her about her background and her techniques.

How did you get into photography? What’s the first thing you took a photo of as a “photographer”?

I’ve loved photography for as long as I can remember. I’m not sure what the first thing was that I photographed, but it was probably something boring. Over time, and after looking back through a lot of old photographs recently, I’m finding that the pictures I love most are of people. It’s an amazing feeling when someone loves a photograph I’ve shot of them, and several people have used photos I’ve taken as their Gravatar—which I feel is a pretty cool compliment.

“This one is great because it’s a unique perspective,” Sheri says, “a different way of looking at an icy, wintry world for a moment.” See the original here.
Your blog is called “Cuteness, in all its versatility.” How do you define cuteness? And how do you identify it as a subject for your work?

The name “Cuteness, in all its versatility” came about because I was told I tend to overuse the word cute! I probably used that word for anything and everything and anything for a while, and so the definition became a bit fuzzy in my world. To me, it means something I like, and so anything goes as a subject, it can be anything that’s interesting or intriguing or silly or beautiful.

Sheri says, “I love this one because other people loved it and because it’s a good memory of a good place and time. It was taken under Scripps Pier in San Diego.” See the original here.
What kind of equipment do you use, and why?

For everyday things, I shoot with an iPhone 6S. I love it. Shooting with an iPhone to create memories works really well for most of what I need. When photographing events, I like to shoot with either Canon or Nikon with the fastest lenses I can get. Often I’ll shoot with a 70-200mm f/2.8 because you can get better candid shots from a distance while staying on the sidelines. I also really like shooting with a 50mm f/1.2 prime or a 24-70mm f/2.8.

What do you look for in a subject in terms of lighting, etc.? How do you know whether a photo will come out the way you envision it?

When taking snapshots or when just photographing something for fun, good lighting is often something you stumble upon. One thing that I have learned is that if you see an opportunity for a photograph in a space that has good light, you should take advantage of it right then because you never know when the light will change! Natural light can change so fast. You don’t always really know whether a photo will come out the way you envision it. The trick is to take a whole lot of photos and then choose the ones that worked out the best.

Sheri says: “I love this photo because it’s not staged but looks just like a stock photo. These are real people working on WordPress at WordCamp US 2016.” See the original here.

Sheri Bigelow is also a UX researcher at Automattic, the geniuses behind WordPress.com. Find her work in UX and theme design at DesignSimply.com.

Learning to draw with Graham Shaw

I’ve always wanted to have some kind of artistic talent. When I was 15, I enrolled in art classes run by an extremely talented and patient man, who taught me sketching and oil painting. There was only so much he could do for me, though, and the end result was that I dropped the art classes at the end of the summer to focus on schoolwork.

Some dreams never die, though, and so I was really excited when I saw this video on the TEDTalks YouTube channel. It’s called “Why People Think They Can’t Draw” by Graham Shaw. In it, he advances an interesting premise: that anyone can learn to draw in a few easy steps.

When I watched the video I was a little skeptical, but I went ahead and gave it a shot. The style Shaw demonstrates here is very caricature-ish, but the technique does work. I made the whole gang, including the unnamed bald guy.  Exhibit A:

Featuring Thelma, Pam, and Jeff. Spike and Bald Guy not pictured.
Featuring Thelma, Pam, and Jeff. Spike and Bald Guy not pictured.

So can anyone draw this way? Well, given my utter lack of talent, I’m going to go ahead and say yes. The downside is that it’s a bit limiting in terms of style – if this kind of design isn’t really your thing, you might not be very interested in pursuing it. Also, you’re only getting profiles of the characters you’re drawing. But the video did inspire me in one way: Shaw’s whole technique is based on making small elements that build on each other. That can’t be too hard, right?

That process produced Exhibit B:

I added a few more details, including ears and a light sketch of the bridge of her nose.
I added a few more details, including ears and a light sketch of the bridge of her nose.

This was a really fun experiment to do and I think it’s a great way to approach the creative process, whether you’re using that process to produce art or anything else where you’re not sure where to start or how to get the result you want. You’re not going to be producing Mona Lisa-style portraits, but you can create simple cartoons to use in your business or for your own personal amusement. With a little practice, I think Lizzy and I could become very good friends.

Like this post? Come back on Tuesday for more cool stuff!

Link Bank: May 2016

Great reads on creativity, media, and more that I’ve compiled for this month:

Secrets of the Creative Brain – The Atlantic

“I have spent much of my career focusing on the neuroscience of mental illness, but in recent decades I’ve also focused on what we might call the science of genius, trying to discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains. What, in short, is the essence of creativity?”

When Storytime Blows Kids Minds: The Power of the Plot Twist – NPR

“”I, am your father!” I stopped, and drew my breath, elated. I had said the words. I was overcome, like the Sith Lord, by what I could do. I, his mother, was the first one to expose what may be the greatest plot twist since Mr. Rochester’s wife turned up screaming in the attic. I was drunk with power, and my entire history as a sentient consumer of story flew through my head. It felt so good, I contemplated spoiling every other thing I knew.”

Who Are All Those Newborn Extras? – The A.V. Club

“There’s a small army of tiny, barely sentient extras. Whose babies are they? Where do studios find them? What’s that weird fake placental goo made out of?”

The Point of Stories – Sweet Talk

“We tell stories to supplement for experience, so that we can be prepared for things that haven’t happened to us personally but can be imagined to happen.”

On Raising Backyard Chickens – Broad Street Review

“Chickens, alive or oven-roasted, weren’t much a part of my childhood. My father — still haunted by the memory of Friday night dinners in Brooklyn, boiled chicken congealing on the plate while he refused to eat and his mother scolded — banned chicken in any form from our family table.”

Betty and Veronica #2 Covers Revealed – The Mary Sue

“They seem more representative of actual teenage girls than a caricature of them, which I really appreciate.”