When Do You Get Your Creative Energy?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 9, 2016

More and more I’m realizing what it means to be a morning person. I’ve been retired for over two years and have all my time free. Yet, I’ve discovered if I’m not creative before noon, I should switch from output mode to input mode. After lunch I can socialize, read, listening to music, watch TV, cook, exercise, clean house, but I can’t write or program. I can study in the afternoons and evenings, but I don’t know how effective it is.

Yesterday I was flowing with creative ideas, and poured out words before 9am, but I had to go to the grocery story before it got busy. Even getting back by 11am, I realized nothing was coming out of the idea faucet. It felt so freaking strange to be so full of ideas that morning and sixty minutes later feel so completely empty. My brain felt dark. Sometimes I can take a nap after lunch, and I’ll start thinking of things to write, but I can’t make my body sit at the keyboard and type.

faucet

My mind turns on around 5am, but coziness keeps me in my sleeping chair until 6:30 or 7:00. Often I’ll write for an hour or so before showering and exercising, and then eat breakfast at 10 or 10:30. What’s so damn cliché, is showering turns on my idea faucet full blast. I can usually keep working for another hour or two after breakfast, but that’s it. My thoughts slow down to a drip drip drip. No recourse but to eat lunch.

I’ve wondered if eating calms the mind? I’ve read our body goes through daily chemical cycles, and evidently there’s a stage in my chemical processes that stimulate ideas. At other times during the day I can get ideas, and the faucet might speed up to a dribble, but my body is filled with inertia. I wish it was healthy and legal to do artificial stimulants. It’s also cliché how many writers used drugs to stimulate their muses.

I’ve recently read a couple biographies of Philip K. Dick, and he’d write like a maniac all night long. He was also crazy, and he did a lot of speed. Being a night person has its drawbacks, because if you have mental problems, staying up all hours only inflames them. I’m a calm and happy person. Are other morning people that way too? I’ve always wondered if I wasn’t a productive creative person because I’m too even keeled. Elizabeth Gilbert in her new book claims it is possible to be well adjusted and creative, but I’m not sure how many people are.

By the way, I never hear about afternoon people. Are there swing shift creative people?

JWH

77 Things I Learned From Writing 1,000 Blog Essays

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 20, 2016

This is my 1,000th blog post and I’ve learned a lot from blogging.

My first post was “Access time in a fifty-five year old brain” published 12/26/2006. Here’s the first paragraph:

The main reason I’ve created this blog is to help me remember.   After that I want to study how information is organized with the ultimate plan of taming the horde of competing topics that have tangled up my synapses.  I’m hoping if I can find a way to organize my thoughts I will be able to remember facts and details more efficiently and faster.  If I can’t, then the search box will do the job my neurons can’t.  My access time for my gray matter runs from instant, to many hours, to total failure.  This started as a noticeable problem in my late forties and has been getting worse ever since.

Well, I’m still struggling to organize my thoughts, but I’m quite confident Auxiliary Memory has been an huge help as an external memory device. Blogging is also a form of mental exercise that keeps my declining mind in shape. After nine years, or 3,314 days, and over a million words, I have forgotten most of what I’ve written, but it’s still there for me to retrieve. I’m often surprised to reread what I write. Blogging has turned out to be an incredibly useful tool, and I wonder why more people don’t blog.

To celebrate these nine hundred and ninety-nine essays, I thought I’d note some of what I’ve learned.

  1. Blogging is like piano practice for writing.
  2. Essay writing is a concrete way to organize thoughts.
  3. Original thoughts are thin and vague, and it takes a lot of work to make them coherent.
  4. Often coherency doesn’t show up until days of writing and rewriting. 
  5. We don’t realize how unclear our thoughts are until we try to put thoughts into sentences.
  6. Thinking improves with editing.
  7. The quality of my writing is directly related to the number of times I reread and edited an essay before I hit the publish button.
  8. There is no relation between getting hits and what I’m interested in writing about.
  9. I can’t predict what people will want to read. The old essay that gets the most current hits is “Do You Dream About Dinosaur Attacks?” If you search Google for “Dreaming about dinosaurs” my piece is 2nd in their listing. Evidently 30-50 people a day research this topic. I never would have predicted that.
  10. If my goal is to get hits, then I should review products. Product reviews are my consistent hit getters, but I quit writing them. 
  11. Science fiction is the subject that has garnered my most readers, and my favorite topic to write about.
  12. Don’t expect your friends and family to read your blogs.
  13. Only a few of my friends have subscribed to my blog and will occasionally mention reading an essay, or post a reply.
  14. I’ve learn to write what I feel like writing and not to worry if it will be read. I’m currently getting 250-350 hits a day, mostly due to Google searches, but also because of a handful of regular readers. I have 1,500 subscribers. But I can’t assume that a hit means a read. Just because a person clicks on a Google search return doesn’t mean I’m providing them with information they want to know. And many of my subscribers are other bloggers hoping I’ll read their blog. (Which I do try to do.)
  15. It’s extremely hard to write a 1,000 words that someone else will want to read.
  16. Few people want to think about a specific topic the same time that I do.
  17. There are very few people that have the same mixture of interests as I do.
  18. Blogging is a way to embed your personality into words.
  19. Blogging is a way to find out how many of your friends, family, and strangers think your interests are interesting.
  20. Blogging is a way to express yourself without boring your friends.
  21. If you want to find out how interesting you are to your friends, blog your thoughts. You might be surprised.
  22. There is a direct relationship between how much time my friends are willing to listen to me talk and whether or not they will read what I’ve written. My most chatty friends, the ones that never let me get a word in, never read my blog. I don’t say this as a hurt ego, but to show that blogging will reveal which of your friends are actually interested in what’s going inside of your head. Don’t blog if you don’t want to know.
  23. Blogging will reveal what your true interests are to yourself, and how fanatical you are about them.
  24. Blogging is a good way to meet people like yourself online.
  25. Blogging is a good way to learn if you have common interests or obscure fascinations.
  26. Blogging is a way to learn when your thinking is faulty.
  27. Blogging is a way to learn when your thinking is political incorrect.
  28. Blogging is a way to learn things about yourself that you don’t see – because readers do.
  29. Blogging is a way to test the limits of your memory.
  30. If you blog about a past event and try to document it with photos, outside reference material, interviews with people at the event, you’ll learn that memories are piss-poor at best.
  31. A well written blog about an event written within 24 hours will provide a better memory than your brain.
  32. If you get an idea for a blog post start writing it as soon as possible because the idea will disappear quickly.
  33. Blogging is mostly memory, opinions and reporting.
  34. Reporting is when you document events outside of yourself.
  35. Being a good reporter is hard.
  36. Opinions are a dime a million, essentially worthless unless you can back them up with evidence.
  37. The more evidence the better. 
  38. My personal memories are only interesting to people if I can frame them in a universal theme. And even then, few people will read them. One of my favorite memory-lane pieces, “Super Men and Mighty Mice” has gotten the least amount of hits. It was about being kids and pretending to fly, and begins like this:

    During the Ozzie and Harriet years, when I was seven and people called me Jimmy, my sister Becky and our best friends Mikey and Patty, would beg old tattered terry cloth towels from our moms and pretend to be George Reeves. We’d tie those old faded pastel rags around our necks, stretch out our arms, hands flat, fingers pointing forward, tilt our heads down and run like Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters, occasionally jumping with all our might, with the hopes of getting airborne like Superman, or at least Mighty Mouse. And when we were burnt out and our little bodies too tired to try any more, we’d go to sleep at night and have flying dreams.

  39. It’s hard to write Jean Shepherd type nostalgia and get hits. Shepherd is famous for A Christmas Story. Nostalgia just doesn’t index well on Google.
  40. Nostalgia does appeal to readers who have similar past experiences. It’s lucky when you find those people, or they find you. 
  41. Blogging teaches elements of journalism. If you want hits, you have to write what other people want to read. That means focusing on current popular topics, and writing short pieces that don’t exceed the common attention span. I decided long ago to write what I’m interested in and at lengths longer than most people want to read. So it goes. 
  42. I’ve learned that I naturally think in 500-1500 word essays.
  43. 500-1500 words is far longer than what most people want to read.
  44. Titles are very important.
  45. Delete all the words that people will skim over.
  46. I’m a verbose writer and don’t delete enough.
  47. Over the years I’ve often written about topics I’ve already written about but have forgotten that did.
  48. I have common themes I repeat but I hope are refined with each new approach. 
  49. Regular blogging helps with my writing and thinking skills.
  50. Regular blogging helps with my verbal skills. This was a real revelation.
  51. Regular blogging keeps my vocabulary active. If I don’t blog for a week or two I start forgetting words, and forget how to pronounce them. That old saying, “Use it or lose it” is true.
  52. Blogging has been a great social outlet since I retired.
  53. I can express myself better in a blog than I can talking.
  54. Blogging helps me listen to other people.
  55. Blogging makes me wish my friends blogged so I could read their thoughts.
  56. Blogging makes me wish my friends blogged so they would make their thoughts more coherent.
  57. Blogging is somewhat like being in a hive mind.
  58. I wished I had started blogging when I learned to read and write.
  59. I wished I had learned to read and write at age 4, when I started being self-aware.
  60. I wished my parents, grandparents, and ancestors had blogged so I could read about their inner lives.
  61. I wish the Library of Congress would archive blogs.
  62. I wish politicians, famous people and people doing interesting jobs would blog. Sound bites on television makes people seem shallow, tweets make them seem snarky, and Facebook makes them seem silly.
  63. Everyone approaches blogging differently. Some people use it like a diary, making short notes about their day. Others post photographs of all the places they visit. Some people repost other people’s blogs that they like. Some people write excessively about tiny topics, or say essentially nothing about big topics. There’s no one way to blog.
  64. Folks want to read about your dreams about as much as they want to see your vacation photos.
  65. Sometimes you have to guess what you remember. In recent years many writers have gotten into trouble for writing nonfiction that turned out to be fiction. Memory is closer to fiction than nonfiction. That’s just how it is.
  66. Wikipedia is my absolute best memory bank.
  67. Google makes a great spelling tool and dictionary.
  68. Sometimes I have to play Six Degrees of Separation to remember a person. IMDb is great tool for that.
  69. I’ve learn to fact-check my memory.
  70. I always try to send friends my blog when I mention them, but most people don’t care.
  71. I generally get photos from Google and use them without credit. I shouldn’t do that. I do try to get generic photos, or things in public domain.
  72. Sometimes people use my posts and photos without credit. Sometimes I think it’s flattery, other times I think fraud.
  73. Blogging is good for my mental health.
  74. Blogging gives me a sense of purpose after I retired.
  75. Blogging is a way to examine my life – remember an unexamined life is not worth living.
  76. Blogging is a way to be philosophical.
  77. Blogging is a way to push myself to do more.

Pug10

JWH

All the Time in the World is Still Not Enough

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 7, 2016

All during my work years, while I toiled away at my 8:30-5:00 grind, I endlessly ached to be free. I just wanted time to write. Now that I’m retired, and have all the time in the world, it’s still not enough. I’m writing regularly, devoting hours a day to my task, but I’m not keeping up with all the ideas that beg me to give them birth. Recently I found Big Magic at the library, a lovely new book on creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert. I highly recommend this book to those who struggles to be creative, whether at writing, music, art, dance, acting, or even robot design, while holding down a fulltime job and believing they don’t have enough time. Gilbert provides 276 pages of inspiration and advice that’s backed by the wisdom of her success. I know many people who are prejudiced against Elizabeth Gilbert for that same success, but I’m not one of them. Her advice resonated easily with my experiences.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Gilbert carefully illustrates that we all have enough time to be creative, no matter how busy our life, or how much free time we can find. She goes on to prove it’s the kind of shit sandwich you’re willing to eat that determines creative productivity. Gilbert explains that creativity always comes at a cost. It’s not about finding time, but paying the price. Writing every day is one of the costs. Whatever shit you have to eat to make yourself write is the cost. People give up on their dreams because they won’t suffer the shit that it takes. Her metaphor is crude, but makes a lot of sense if this is your kind of struggle.

I have all the time in the world, and it’s still not enough. What I’ve been learning the hard way, it’s not about time, it’s about work. There will always be an endless list of ideas I can write about. There will always be a limited amount of time. What determines my creative output is effort, not time. Everything Gilbert writes about I’ve been learning since I’ve retired. Time and again as I read this book, her advice clarified what I’ve been learning on my own without conscious clarity.

It really comes down to sticking to a project until it’s finished. It doesn’t matter how important the art, or how ambitious the scope, or whether it will make money or not. All that matters is getting into the zone and working. You work at what you like, and you don’t worry if anyone else will like it, buy it or judge it. Time isn’t an issue. It’s not about what I’ve done, or hope to do, it’s only about the project I’m working on at the moment. And at this moment, I’m reviewing this book.

Essay #995

Publishing Outside My Blog

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 5, 2016

I’ve had two essays published at SF Signal that normally I would have published here. I don’t know if my regular readers, all seven of you, will miss these stories or not, but I thought I might mention them. They were “64 Classic Science Fiction Books I Want To Hear” that was written for my 64th birthday, and “The Literary Novels of Philip K. Dick.” SF Signal is a website devoted to tracking anything on the net that deals with science fiction and fantasy. It won a Hugo award in 2012, 2013 and 2014. So it’s ego boosting to get published there. And I want to thank it’s editor John DeNardo for linking to this blog in the past, encouraging me to submit, and accepting these essays.

I’ve been writing Auxiliary Memory since 2007, and this is my 993rd essay. I consider blogging piano practice for writing. Now that I’ve been retired for two years I’ve decided to push my writing ability by submitting to other sites. I’ve gotten comfortable with blogging, and I need to dial up the intensity knob, aim higher and push against my limitations. I’m starting by submitting to non-paid sites for a while, to get used to writing for editors. After that I’ll work up to submitting to paid sites. Writing is a fulfilling hobby to have in retirement—and it helps strengthen flabby memory muscles.

I will keep blogging, hopefully at a regular pace, but I need to spend more time on substantial pieces that I’ll send elsewhere. I need to learn what kind of essays are best suited for this blog, and what kind are best sent elsewhere. I’m also hoping that getting published on other sites will attract readers for this site. WordPress says I have 1,500 followers, but I know most of them are just folks promoting their websites (which is cool by the way). Writing something that another person will take ten minutes of their time to read is a challenge. I’m sure there are tens of thousands of new works to read on the internet every day, maybe even in the millions. Competition is fierce for eyeballs. Deciding on a writing topic that is reading worthy is a difficult task. It’s work that pushes my brain to think harder, and since I’m at a stage in life where my brain cells want to kick back and watch TV, it can feel like walking two miles to school everyday, both ways uphill, in the snow,

JWH

Three Lessons I Learned About Writing From Going To See David Sedaris

Thursday night I got to hear David Sedaris enchant a nearly sold-out theater. One that holds a thousand people. That’s a lot of readers in one place for a writer. It’s a good thing we all loved him. I wonder if James Patterson or George R. R. Martin could get a horde of fans to shuck out $50 to hear them read? I was amazed by so many people coming to hear a guy read a couple New Yorker essays and banter for a couple hours. I considered it $50 well spent of my wife’s money—thanks Susan. But, is David Sedaris a standup comedian that publishes his routines, or a humorist that’s constantly on tour?

david sedaris

Sedaris is the funniest guy I know, and his skill with words is impressive, but I can’t just read his essays. I have to hear Sedaris speak his words, otherwise those words aren’t nearly as funny. I’ve always bought David Sedaris’ books on audio. Seeing him on stage was exactly like listening to his audiobooks, but with an extra sensory dimension. Strangely, the 3D visuals didn’t add much to his jokes—he’s kind of ordinary looking. He did wear a white shirt and tie, but with culottes, and even that outfit looked conservative on him. No, what makes you love the dude is his voice—and words.

Because Sedaris is so successful, I have to consider him as a role model for writing. I wish I could write blog essays that are as entertaining and funny as those I’ve discovered in the six books of his I’ve listened to so far. Even though I have to hear Sedaris, I’ve bought a number of his books in hardback to study. If I was a young person hoping to make it big putting words together for sale, I’d deconstruct David Sedaris’ career carefully. Strangely though, Sedaris reminds me of two 19th century authors who made piles of dough touring and telling funny stories based on their printed work: Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.

The number one Sedaris lesson, is write funny stuff, a hard task, but also write funny stuff that matches your voice. Woody Allen was always great at doing this too. And thinking back, I can remember a lifetime of standup comedians that did just that too. As a kid I can remember reading Bob Hope books, and it was impossible to read them without hearing Hope’s voice and delivery in my head. Which makes me wonder, did P. G. Wodehouse or James Thurber ever go around entertaining people live? This makes me wonder all the more if Sedaris is a comic or humorist. It’s probably easier to break in through print than performing. Jenny Lawson has done a wonderful job as The Bloggess, but will we ever see her on stage like Sedaris? Do all funny writers eventually go live? But I could also ask, do all comedians eventually publish humor books?

As much as I’d love having the skill of writing funny essays, I’d never want the task of reading them in public.  Of course, lesson number two for becoming a successful writer like David Sedaris, is learning to speak in public, a scary concept for me. Evidently, Sedaris has spent countless nights in hotels, interacting with thousands of strange people personally before and after going on stage in front of millions. Sedaris seemed extremely at ease hanging out with us, even though we outnumbered him 1,000 to 1. Sedaris is so engaging, it’s hard not to feel like you know the guy, and even want to hang out with him. What kind of mental abilities are required to talk to people for two hours and not bore them? Does he have an overwhelming need to be liked, or has he learned that with selling books he must sell himself? Is this a requirement for all would-be writers? I assume most would-be writers are like me, introverts. Does a successful literary career require extroversion?

The third writing lesson I took away from seeing David Sedaris the other night is: Pay attention to other people. Sedaris read from his diary, making it obvious he’s a keen observer and collector good anecdotes. Funny stuff is everywhere. I’m surprised by how many jokes he just picked up off the ground. Having long lines of people queue up to get their book signed is a great resource of story ideas. Just be patient and let them talk. Sedaris’ early books were all about his family and himself, but as time passed more of his material came from observations of strangers he met in his travels. This is why Dickens and Twain were so popular. They were great people observers. Just look at the list of named characters Dickens created. Often they were based on real people. Dickens and Twain ended up their lives by touring the world enthralling audiences acting out their most famous characters and scenes. How much of great writing is witnessing those scenes and how much is imagining them? Did David Sedaris really feed his tumor to an old snapping turtle?

Table of Contents

Where Do Old Nerds Go To Die?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, September 1, 2015

While I was still working and planning my retirement, I assumed I would eventually relocate somewhere with a low population and high density of 55-plus people. I don’t like the idea of getting old and living in a big city. The older I get, the less I tolerate the hustle and bustle of young people. Now that I’ve been retired for a couple of years I’m feeling a stronger urge to find that place. In my mind I picture the elephants in the old Tarzan movies who instinctively knew the path to the secret elephant grave yard. My instincts are taking me in weird directions.

Staying put in my house that will be paid off in four years will be the easier, less stressful path to take. Yet, now is the time to consider moving to a town that’s safer, quieter, more beautiful, and possibly populated with people more like myself. I figure the older I get the more stressful it will be to move, so if I’m going to move, doing it it sooner would be better than later. Deciding where keeps haunting my mind. Starting over means both adventure and loss. I moved a lot growing up, so I know what it’s like to begin again in a new town, leaving all my old friends, and having to look for new ones. However, I’ve been settled in one city for over forty years now, so I’m a much different person.

When I wonder about where to retire I fantasize about my ideal living environment.  Susan would like to stay near her family, but I feel we’ve always stayed near her family, so maybe it’s my turn to pick. My sister lives near West Palm Beach, Florida, and I grew up in Miami, where my oldest friend still lives. Nostalgia makes me want to return home, but South Florida has changed a lot in 45 years. Thomas Wolfe was right, we can’t go home again. And when I drive around Florida using Street View on Google Maps it’s not the terrain I want to see when I leave this planet. But what landscape do I want to pass my waning years viewing?

If you think about it, where you retire is where you’re likely to die. And as much as we like to think about beautiful bucket-list places around the globe, most people want to die at home. And to be honest, it would be much more natural for me to die in front of my computer monitor or big screen TV than on some scenic mountainside or majestic beach. I fantasize I want to move to one of those beautiful mid-century houses I see in Atomic Ranch Magazine, in a quiet 55 Plus community of blue state folks. I could do that, but nagging doubts hold me back.

I’ve been anguishing over that issue for months now, so I was surprised this morning when my unconscious mind spit out the answer. And it wasn’t what I expected at all. Out of my dark subconscious a ray of illumination informs me that thinking about where to move my body is a diversion from the real issue I face; where to locate my mind.

TV

Now, here is where things get really squirrelly, and my unconscious mind shows its savvy awareness of my true motivations. I’m almost embarrass to admit what my dark mind tells me, because it seems like a kind of perversion of the natural. What I love are high resolution screens. What I enjoy most is processing reality through television screens, computer screens, tablet screens and smartphone screens. Because wherever I move, what I want is a comfortable house that will hold all my screens and a high speed connection to the internet.

That should have been obvious to me all along, because for all these months I’ve agonized over where to retire I’ve also been researching how I can upgrade all my screens to 4K resolution. When I contemplate this revelation I realize I spend most of my waking hours in front of screens, and the only time I prefer 3D reality is when I’m with people, eating, going for walks, or looking at paintings in museums. Most everything else I prefer digitized.

Where to retire will be the best place for me to keep my screens and speakers, hang out with friends and go for walks. I’m not really interested in golf, shuffleboard or skiing, although if I lived somewhere where people did those things daily I might do them to be social. I need a certain amount of social time, but not nearly as much as I crave screen time.

It’s weird to confess I love books, movies, television shows and music so much, but if you think about it, I’ve always loved them, so why should I expect to change? What would be great is to move to a retirement village populated by people like me who want to socialize by sharing what they are learning and experiencing from their screens.

Is there a place where old nerds go to die?

Then my unconscious mind informed me of its second revelation. It’s not time to be thinking about dying, or even retiring. Just because I’m retired from the world of work doesn’t mean I’m retired from my ambitions. My hidden self informed me this morning not to waste time on thinking about where to live, but to apply that processing time to being creative. I retired from work to have time to write. I have that. I’m already where I need to be.

Thinking about beautiful locales of where to live was only a way of avoiding working on my ambitions. I need to move to Shangri-La when I no longer have the will to keep trying and want a pleasant place to wait to die.

Since I’m not an old nerd ready to die, then I’ve got to get back to work.

Have screen—will travel.

JWH

Pressing Against My Bowl

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 3, 2015

Creative success mostly happens to the young. Desiring to write a first novel after retiring is to sail against statistical odds so strong it feels like tilting at windmills. Despite increase exercise, switching to a plant based diet that gives me more energy, losing thirty pounds, and feeling better than I have in years, I realize I can’t make my mind young again. Aging lets me caress my limitations. Like being a goldfish exploring the boundaries of my bowl.

one-goldfish-in-a-bowl

The trick now is to squeeze more efficiency out of my old brain. Whether I write a novel or not is no longer the goal. What’s important now is to keep trying. Concentrating on putting sentences into a coherent structures exercises something in me that I can’t name. Some days it feels like I’ve done more reps than usual, or pressed more weight than ever before. It gives the illusion that I’m swimming in a larger bowl.

I’ve never been a hard worker, but when I was young I had a natural vitality that kept me going. My mind is still active, but easily wimps out. I get appealing ideas all day long that I entertain in my head for hours. I will read and research for days. My unconscious mind digests these thoughts until I’m ready to sit down to write. Sometimes something comes together in a couple of hours, but because I’m tired, I’ll often hit the publish button to be free. Other times, I’ll set the piece aside to try again tomorrow. However, if I can’t bring an essay to completion in two-three tries I give up.

A person with youth and talent can rewrite an essay a dozen times, spending weeks and even months to get things just right. I’m pushing to write something now that is demanding more than I usually give. I push myself to stay with it. When I’ve got energy I want to keep working, when I’m tired I want to quit. My meaning is life always changing. Currently, it’s sticking to a task.

It’s no longer what I do, but finding something inside me to keep exploring the boundaries of my little universe. I’m learning that aging shrinks my ability to write, but wisdom expands what I want to say.

JWH