What Makes Your Life Extraordinary?

What Makes Your Life Extraordinary?

In Dead Poet’s Society, Mr Keating takes the boys to the hallway to see the photos of past students and whispers the immortal lines, “Carpe diem. Seize the days, boys. Makes your lives extraordinary.”

A current television commercial runs the slogan, “Escape ordinary.”

What makes a life extraordinary?

People buy into this idea of your life having to be a Broadway extravaganza or a Hollywood blockbuster ALL. THE. TIME.

We are presented with hyper-idealised notions of reality. Do life BIGGER, BETTER, FASTER, LOUDER, MORE DEMONSTRATIVE, IN YOUR FACE and (dare I use it because I hate the acronym) YOLO! It’s perfectly captured in the Selfie Generation: LOOK AT ME, I’M IMPORTANT AND I DESERVE YOUR ATTENTION.

It is the wrong perspective.*adjusts cardigan and puts on slippers*

What’s wrong with ordinary? Ordinary is where I live and find my inspiration. I joke my life is coloured beige for boring, making my life extra ordinary.

For the creative person, extraordinary is a way to burn out because it demands you give out so much more of yourself than is returning to you.

“The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”

For me as a writer, the greatest stories are not the ones we see in films, the lives of movie stars, but in the embarrassing ordinariness of people doing things in their every day lives that benefits others. The ones who don’t see their work as anything important; they are filling a need, taking care of their community, advocating for the poor and disadvantaged. Living an extraordinary life is one lived in service of others and pursing your own dreams. Balancing the self with the care of others. Telling their story is an extraordinary privilege.

I like to think of the word as “extra-ordinary.” The one thing that defines the ordinary from the extraordinary is passion. Mr Keating exhorted his young charges to engage with the aspects of life that they were passionate about.

For the creative person, the passion manifests itself in the choice of medium whether it’s writing, art or music.

As it relates to creativity, to continually produce great art, to live an extra ordinary life, requires repetition, ritual and reflection.

Repetition

Not once, not twice, not even thrice but continually and habitually. Continue to produce art: write regularly; sketch, doodle, scribble whenever possible; practice scale and rudiments.

Repetition can become staid and uninspiring so it requires a dedication and committed work ethic to maintain your focus on being creative.

Early efforts will be complete and utter rubbish. But that’s the point of repetition: you do it until you get better.

Ritual

Setting aside an assigned time to work on your creative project is like attending church or settling onto the couch to watch your favourite television show or sport team compete. Like repetition, it is a repeated event but the goal is one of individual development.

Ritual provides structure and is an active reminder to develop a disciplined approach to our creativity.

Reflection

Movement without reflection will only end up with you moving in a circular fashion, only ever returning to the starting point without having learned or progressed.

Every once in a while it is important to reflect on your goals, your progress in terms of work produced and skills developed. Are you improving? Has anything weakened? What else do you need to know?

Creativity makes your life extraordinary because you have embraced repetition, ritual and reflection. You are taking the ordinariness of life and giving it meaning through creating great art.

This makes you extraordinary.

Addendum: This morning in the shower (place of many great epiphanies along with the kitchen sink while washing up) I had another idea to add. It was the one thing that makes a life extraordinary: Relationship.

Without relationship, we are merely individuals without community and connection. In relationship with other creative people we make our lives extraordinary because we have companionship, connection and community. We are no longer alone. This is fundamental in making our lives extraordinary.

New Poem Published In Vine Leaves Literary Journal

Today sees the publication of one of my poems, ELIHU’S MEDITATION ON QUESTIONS UNANSWERED in Vine Leaves Literary Journal.

—“beautiful agony”—

Elihu was one of characters who came and sat with Job in the Old Testament Book Of Job. He said nothing while his companions lectured Job after his loss and suffering.

The origin of the poem came about during a staff retreat where I work. The focus of the day was on suffering and a colleague shared her remarkable journey of the last few years. It was heartbreaking yet imbibed with a sense of joy.

It made me think why we don’t simply sit with our friends when we are suffering; instead we try to offer platitudes and trite condolences. We are afraid of silence, afraid of our own suffering, or the threat of suffering. We conveniently limit suffering to news excerpts on television, subjects we can listen to and then forget about when the segment is over. It doesn’t bring about change in ourselves.

Suffering, when focused on the ones we love, is a time for mourning and contemplation. It is a time for identifying with their pain and suffering. It is a time to act, to comfort, to listen, to be silent, to make a meal, mow their lawn, fold their washing, buy them a coffee.

Sometimes it is the hardest thing to remain silent when everyone else is speaking.

You can read more in Issue 10 and a wealth of stirring poetry, vignettes and art.

Follow Vine Leaves Literary Journal on twitter (@VineLeavesLJ) and Facebook.

Want To Be Creative? Ask Good Questions

The key to unlocking creativity is asking good questions.

There is no singular question, like having the key to a cupboard, to unlock creativity. It’s more like being given a set of keys to unlock many cupboards, boxes, safes, vaults and the little box you thought you’d forgotten about.

When you know which key unlocks which box, you have an opportunity to develop your creative skills.

Non-creative people, those who are yet to understand that they too, can BE a creative person, look on in wonder and ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” They are looking at the key in their hand and using it to dig the wax out of their ears or stir the milk and sugar into their cup of tea.

Last year I wrote 11 Facetious (and 1 Serious) Answers to the Question, “Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

The question is a default position where the person does not believe they can be a creative person, and they are seeking out a secret formula to unlock the means to creativity. The non-creative person thinks, “If only I had an idea I could be creative.” There is a two-fold belief system happening. First, I can’t be creative and second, I just need an idea and I’ll be creative.

These two belief systems stem from a lack of belief in a person’s ability to be creative. It gives the non-creative person an excuse NOT to do something, because they don’t believe they can generate an idea nor do they believe they have the skills to be creative. They compare themselves to others and think, “I can never be as creative as Person A or Person Z.”

For the creative person, the generation of ideas varies. Some have no problem finding ideas, others select their ideas judiciously while still others discover their ideas like diamonds, digging through layers and layers until they strike upon it.

Questions, Questions, Questions

The key to being creative lies in asking good questions. What those questions are will vary from person to person, and from medium to medium.

The writer may not ask the same question as the painter, or the photographer may not ask the same question as the musician.

There are two fundamental questions that all creative people ask:
What is the purpose of this work?
Who is my intended audience?

Beyond these basic questions, creative types need impetus and direction. To develop a creative life we need to ask questions that begin with “What…?” or “How…?” or “Why…?”

  • What will challenge me?
  • What have I not tried before?
  • Who can I collaborate with?
  • Why do I want to write or paint or draw or learn an instrument?
  • Can I try this piece in a different genre? a different form?
  • What inspires me?
  • What negates my inspiration and sucks me dry?
  • What do I want to achieve?
  • What have I not achieved yet?
  • Have I set a timeline for my goals?
  • What skills can I learn from experimenting in a different medium?

In the search for understanding about what it means to be creative, to understand how a creative person generates ideas, we must ask good questions; ones that provide momentum and direction to our creative endeavours. Good questions help us understand our creative processes and build good creative habits.

If you have ever wanted to be creative, learn to ask good questions to help unlock your creativity and have a fulfilling creative life.

What questions would you ask to unlock your creativity?

A Collection of Micropoetry

I like to write micropoetry on twitter, limiting myself to 140 characters (128 if you include the hashtag).

I collect my micro musings in a document with the aim of publishing a book of poetry (I’ve seen a review of a book of 140 twitter fictions so why not a book of micropoetry?)

But I shall share the more recent ones with you here.

Enjoy.

Which one(s) did you like best? Why?

First Date

an open packet of plain chips
(you prefer Salt and Vinegar)
we scrabble for the scraps
and lick the grease
from our fingers

Irony

In an act of irony
I draw trees on paper
And stick them
On my wall
An ecological conundrum
Where I can’t see
The forest for the trees

Unravelling and Resonating

The unravelling of each other
Pulling at threads of fault
Leaves only a mirror
To reflect and resonate
Our own insecurities

Trivial Dust

Death makes trivial objects
of us all; dust becoming dust
As I wipe my finger
Along the photo frame
My reflection echoes yours

Conscience

Hamlet declared
Conscience does make
cowards of us all
For we ultimately fear
What holds us back
When it should
Push us forward

Why Literature?

I was reading through a series of interviews conducted by indigenous author, Anita Heiss (@AnitaHeiss), with other indigenous Australian writers.

You can read the wonderful series here.

I have no mob, no country, as I am not an indigenous Aboriginal Australian. I respect the land I live in, and acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where I live, and where I teach: the Darug people, past, present and future.

It was one question in the interview series that sparked my tangential thinking; one question that the creative person must ask of themselves. The question was posed for writers, “Of all the art forms, why literature?” 

The question can be rephrased for any creative forms: “Of all the art forms, why music, or art, or photography, or sculpture, or film?” If I have missed your chosen creative medium, please add it to the list, and I apologise for leaving it out.

It made me examine why I write, to ask why I write.

Here’s the easy answer. I suck at drawing and art. I am an average musician, ok, drummer. I have rhythm but dance is beyond me. Singing is WAAAAY out of the question; my vocal chords produce sounds that are neither mellifluous nor tuneful.

So, why words?

I wrote a manifesto some time ago to explain why I write but I want to explore why I use words as the medium of my creativity.

I find words are a meditation, a mastication of ideas and thoughts which hopefully don’t come out as poo. Words are an exploration and investigation, a divining of questions, framed by the experience of the individuals I write about. Writing is creating and understanding the character of the story, seeing the person as an individual. Not as an archetype but as an identifiable person to explore big (and little) ideas (often the minutiae of life). But I’m not focused on writing parables.

Words give me the opportunity to explore the world as I see it and understand it or want to question it through the perspective of a character. The world of common suburbia is where I place my stories.

Words are the best medium for me to communicate it. There is too great a disparity between what I imagine and my skills when it comes to art or music or any other artistic endeavour other than writing for me to attempt it. Words allow me to bridge that gap. That’s not to say I won’t still dabble with art nor stop playing music; but they are not my preferred medium.

It is words for me.

Of all art forms, why *fill in the blank* ?

Ultimately, it’s a question all creative people must address at some point in their journey.

All great creative types have a unique perspective that allows them to create magnificent works of art. The artist sees through their eyes and through their hands to paint or sculpt. The filmmaker and photographer frame the world through their lens. The musician composes in a language that transcends conscious understanding.

Creative people tell stories with their works of art. The audience engages with the story within the work, or the work creates a story the viewer, listener or reader relates to and begins to pass the story on to others.

Art is about communicating. I choose words over brush, camera or instrument.

Why do you use your chosen medium?

Story – Parable or Parallel?

When I was a child I devoured the books of Adrian Plass (The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 /4, The Horizontal Epistles of Andromeda Veal, Stress Family Robinson, View From A Bouncy Castle, Cabbages for the King, The Theatrical Tapes of Leonard Thynn, to name a few). I haven’t read his later works, though not for lack of wanting.

What engaged me was the nature of his story telling. In his novels it was the humanity and humility of people that I engaged with, seeing the everyday flaws and faults, while coming to a greater understanding of people and their idiosyncracies. The people were real yet revealed to me an understanding of a greater truth or moral behind the story.

They were extended parables, stories that taught you something about yourself, about humanity as a greater whole. And I’ve come to realise lately that this parabolic structure has influenced and informed why I tell stories and my interest in writing, leading to defining my writing as “suburban realism.”

Parables

We are most familiar with parables from the Gospels as spoken by Jesus: The Prodigal Son, The Lost Sheep, The Mustard Seed. They often began, “The Kingdom of God is like…” and used images and illustrations familiar to the people as a way of explaining a greater moral principle or spiritual truth.

But should all stories be parables, demonstration lessons or didactic tools? I don’t think so.

We spruik modern parables today via social media; those feel good stories people post that go viral. For example, the Washington Post experiment featuring violin virtuoso Joshua Bell (I think the experiment has many flaws, but that’s for another time).

We watch it cycle through our feeds, read it story, understand the point it is making but are quick to click through and move on through our timelines.

We baulk when stories such as these, and by extension, a short story or novel, film or documentary, comes across as obvious preaching or didactic. However we understand in certain circumstances and settings, a parable is appropriate. 

A parable helps us to understand something greater than the immediate world of the story. Yet it is a fallacy to see all stories as parables, as analogies of greater truths unless specifically intended by the author.

Parables serve a purpose but can be a limiting form and structure for a writer.

Parallels

I also see stories as parallels. Within the form of a short story, a novella or a novel, we see the life of a character transcribed and transformed before us. As we read, we walk alongside the character and watch the emotional ebbs and flows. At times we want to reach out our hand and hold theirs, laugh with them, embrace them in their sorrow or hold them at arm’s length in disgust.

As we parallel the character, we turn a mirror onto ourselves and perhaps see traits of the character we wished we had, or wished we could hide from others.

One purpose of fiction is to tell an engaging story, connecting them with the reader, transporting them into another world, another reality, and to perhaps learn from the experience; to ask the hard questions, even if we end up with more questions and fewer answers; to extrapolate possibilities and infer consequences.

Is all writing an attempt to write a parable, to tell a greater truth or are we writing stories to parallel our existence? The idea that it can be simultaneously a parable and a parallel excites me. 

Failure, Fear, Rejection and Resilience

Creative people are afraid of failure, and too often we fear our creative process and creative ability. In the last two weeks I’ve explored this in: Why Are Creative People Afraid of Failure and Creative People: Fear Not.

In the words of Inigo Montoya, “Let me explain. There is too much; let me sum up.”

Every writer and creative person will define it differently, but at the core, failure is a sense of inability to reconcile the imagined world and the real world, seeing the shortfall between the expectation and reality.

Failure is not an absolute. It is teaching and learning process, and a creative tool.

When we are afraid, fearful of creating, we need to trust in our abilities and skills, our planning and the quality of work.

Turn the fear into a motivating factor. Let it become a driving force.

Turn your fear into excitement. It’s the same chemical in the brain; different interpretation.

Don’t let the fear defeat you.

Summary completed, let’s move on.

When we create we are afraid of failure.

When we create we are afraid of rejection.

If we let the fear of failure consume our creative lives, we become hollow, desolate shells.

Creating anything artistic has within in it a risk of rejection; it is inevitable. It is another aspect of feeling like a failure when a story does not find a publisher, an artwork is rejected for an exhibition or a film is poorly received.

As creative people we feel the emotional knock down of rejection particularly hard. It undermines our ability to create and produce, makes us question our vision and belief in our abilities. Rejection can compound the feeling of failure, a double dose of sucker-punch. Rejection can be demoralising and quench the creative spark that burns within you.

Rejection will happen. It’s how we cope with rejection that will define our creativity. In the face of fear, failure and rejection it is our ability to be resilient, the ability to “bounce back” from adversity and stress.

My writing partner, Jodi Cleghorn, pointed me to this article from The Huffington Post:

“Resilience is practically a prerequisite for creative success, says Kaufman. Doing creative work is often described as a process of failing repeatedly until you find something that sticks, and creatives — at least the successful ones — learn not to take failure so personally.

“Creatives fail and the really good ones fail often,” Forbes contributor Steven Kotler.”

We know we are going to fail and have our work rejected. When we are resilient in the face of failure and rejection we will produce creative works that are more in balance with our ideal world and the real world, closing the gap between expectation and reality.

How can a creative person build resilience in their creative life in the face of fear, failure and rejection?

1. Believe in the skills and talents you have

If you have invested the time into developing, refining and improving your creative skills, trust that you will continue to create good art. 

Always be a learner of your craft. Continually seek ways to improve your writing by writing in a different genre or painting in a different medium. Get feedback from trusted people. 

2. Know the vision you have for your creative work

I created a manifesto to give me vision for the type of stories I want to tell. I  revisit it from time to time as a reminder. One day I will perhaps amend it as my creative journey continues, to reflect the change and development of my work.

3. Set regular goals

The SMART Plan (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-framed) is a great way of tracking your progress regardless of rejection. It keeps you focused on producing, not being bogged down by rejection. Every piece of new work is a step closer to achieving and fulfilling your goals.

My goals are worked out month to month. It’s short and specific and allows me flexibility with the demands of my day job. I have a big picture of the next few years of where I want to go and what I want to do, but I allow enough flexibility for change. 

4. Develop a strong creative network

Everyone needs a cheer squad; someone to put on the rah-rah skirt and wave the pom poms when you’re feeling flat, dejected and uninspired. 

I have a small, closed group on Facebook, made up of writers of different shapes and forms and it is a positive environment to seek feedback, preview new work or have a whinge. We live in different parts of Australia but the online connection means we champion each others’ causes.

5. Look for the positives

Whack on a pair rosy coloured glasses, preferably with a Dame Edna vibe to it, and look at your work in a positive light. As a writer it is too easy to look at all the errors when editing rather than see the fantastic sentences or paragraphs surrounding the small errors.

Fear is natural when we are uncertain, in doubt or under stress.

Failure is not a negative experience but a teaching tool. 

Rejection comes with the creative territory if we are putting our work out there for our audience.

Resilience says, “You are a creative individual” and tells you, “You can do it.” It picks you up, often by the scruff of the neck, dusts you off, smacks you on the bum and tells you to, “Get out there and try again.”

How do you develop resilience as a creative person?