Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

It’s with great pleasure that I introduce you to Coup De Quill, a new book review blog.

It’s still pretty young, but Quinn is hard at work building up an archive. She doesn’t pull punches, but by and large you can expect her not to waste your time with a book unless she would recommend it. She wont settle for new releases either – if there’s a book you need to read, she will tell you about it, be it five days old or five decades.

Speaking of which, her newest review, The After-Dinner Gardener, was suggested by yours truly. So if you take her advice and pick it up, tell her I sent you!


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I started this blog about six weeks ago with the intent of making a go at being a professional blogger. That is to say, I wanted to pick a single topic to write about, to delivery quality material reliably, and to eventually attract enough readers to make money from this project.

As time has gone on, I’ve found the writing increasingly difficult. More and more, I’ve been drifting from general to the specific, noodling over little personal interests instead of broader topics that can apply to my audience. The gulf between the subjects I’ve been covering and the subject of “happiness in the 21st century” has gotten larger and larger. The things I find myself wanting to write about are not the things I said I was going to write about.

I’m rambling, a little.

The next two weeks are big for me, finishing off the semester’s projects and taking finals. So I’m taking a hiatus. In two weeks I’ll come back and let you know if I’m going to continue Step Lightly.

Thanks for understanding.

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This is a another guest post from Quinn Maclaren. Quinn is a freelance writer, was published in The Oasis Journal, and is currently building content for a site of her own (Ed – Coup De Quill is live). (By the way, if you have an idea for a guest post and would like the exposure, please contact me, I would love to hear from you.)

A few days ago, Step Lightly featured a post on starting. Starting anything can be difficult, but starting a new creative endeavor can be agonizing. Any writer who has faced a blank page, or any painter with a blank canvas, can tell you stories. We are led to believe that if we wait, inspiration will come. So we wait, and the longer we wait, the larger the fear of that blank page or blank canvas becomes.

But we all know people, or have read of famous creators, who have no problem starting. Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most prolific authors publishing today, talks in her journals, “The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973 – 1982,” of her writing practice. She always has multiple projects on the burner. If the book of fiction isn’t coming together too well one day, she might instead complete a book review, or polish some poems for publication. When one book goes off to the publisher, she has often already started taking notes on another one.

As Oates writes the end of a book, she also rewrites the beginning. She says that by the end of the book she knows the characters better, so she puts that knowledge to work polishing what she wrote when she was just getting to know them. I suspect that it also helps her to begin with the knowledge that she will be going back over the beginning chapters later. It is mesmerizing to read her journals and see how a master keeps creativity flowing.

Now Twyla Tharp, one of America’s greatest and well-known choreographers, has published “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.” Tharp’s blank canvas is an empty white dance studio, and since beginning her career in 1965, she has created more than 130 dances for her company, has choreographed ballet, has collaborated with film directors, and has worked with every kind of music from classical composers to Billy Joel. Her book boils down all of that experience, and offers it to anyone from composers to writers to a businessman working on a deal to a chef developing a new recipe. Tharp doesn’t see creativity as a gift from the gods. No more waiting for divine inspiration. You can make it happen anytime, and every time.

Over the course of her career, Tharp has developed ways of moving from one project to another without missing a beat. She offers rituals to prepare for new projects, offers exercises to teach us to ‘scratch’ for new ideas, and shows us the difference between being in a rut and being in the groove. Each chapter of her book is followed by exercises (over thirty in all) to help a struggling creator put Tharp’s years of experience and insight to work, not someday, but today. Everything she offers is practical and accessible for beginners and experts alike. There’s nothing fancy here: you might need a pencil and a piece of paper, or a few coins. But there is power in her simplicity.

For example, Tharp begins every creative project with a box. She writes the project name on the box, and as she progresses, she fills it up with everything that went into making the dance. “This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.” Her Billy Joel project eventually filled twelve boxes! The beauty of the system is that nothing is ever lost.

And yes, even Tharp has known failure. She says “…there is a therapeutic power to failure. It cleanses. It helps you put aside who you aren’t and reminds you who you are.” As creators, we all fail. We must try to put failure to work for us, and find positive growth in it. Never let it stop you.

So, what are you waiting for? Begin here.

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This is a another guest post from Quinn Maclaren. Quinn is a freelance writer, was published in The Oasis Journal, and is currently building content for a site of her own (Ed – Coup De Quill is live). (By the way, if you have an idea for a guest post and would like the exposure, please contact me, I would love to hear from you.)

It seems I talk to more and more people of all ages who, like me, feel they are missing out on something in life. We do not find satisfaction on the job. And at home, more and more of our free time is spent in front of the television. We retire at night with no real physical fatigue, but a weariness of mind that seems to prevent the introspection needed to determine what is wrong, or what should be done. Most of us have little energy for job changes, so we change the channel and hope for a better day tomorrow. We are waiting for something to happen to us instead of making something happen for ourselves.

Our society rewards multi-tasking and communication at the speed of email and fax. We are rewarded for quick fixes and little thought is given to whether we produce lasting results. We are taught that we must keep up with our neighbors and peers, and we buy bigger houses and cars, and take more elaborate vacations. But most of us, if we are honest, hear a small voice inside asking what we are doing with our lives, a voice urging us to live differently. Maybe your small voice, like mine, seems to get louder and harder to ignore each day.

My search for answers led me to George Leonard’s book Mastery: the Keys to Success and Long-term Fulfillment. This book was originally published in the early 1990’s, but this is not old news. If anything, the questions he attempts to help us answer have only grown more insistent, more urgent, in the intervening years. Drawing on Zen philosophy and his own practice of the martial art aikido, he shows us why we do not find fulfillment in the way we currently live, and how the process of mastery can help us attain a higher degree of excellence in all that we practice in our daily lives.

Leonard begins by identifying the three personality types that make mastery impossible. (I am a ‘dabbler,’ one who practices a new hobby or art until it becomes difficult, then drops it.) He then offers five keys to mastery, and explains each in detail, drawing on many aspects of his life and the lives of others for examples to support his theories. He knows all the ways we will throw obstacles up, and explains how to best circumvent them. The Zen philosophy underlying his process introduces the beauty and serenity to be found in daily tasks when ‘practice’ is seen not as something we do once in awhile, but rather is how we live every day.

I began my quest for mastery as a writer today while writing this post. Where will you begin?

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When I switched to the art program, I did so with full knowledge that I might be dooming myself to life as a starving artist. I can live with that idea. For many people, though, the perceived lack of income is enough to keep them from pursuing their dreams. And it’s a reasonable enough fear. Lots of people want to be artists (meaning the market is flooded with work), which drops prices. Add to this that many works can be resold or mass produced, and the supply side of art gets even more crowded, mean, yes, lower prices. Toss in the generally subjective way the public choses which art to support, and the industry is a minefield.

Luckily, Kevin Kelly offers an alternative on his website. He calls his idea 1,000 True Fans. He suggests that the problem arises because everyone wants a blockbuster success, but that blockbuster success is typically short lived. This can be a good way to make a lot of money quickly, but not a long term plan for success. Instead, he suggests the key is to focus on your true fans.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

He assumes, I would say rather conservatively, that each true fan may reasonably spend about one days wages per year on your work (or about $100), if not more. With 1,000 such fans, you’re looking at $100,000, minus expenses and taxes. (I think he assumes, since you’re no longer aiming for blockbuster success, that you’re focused more on one-off or print-on-demand work, which lowers the cost). It’s easy to see how this could communicate into a living, perhaps even quite respectable, wage.

What I especially like about his thinking is that it changes the way artists relate to their fans. If you want blockbuster success, it’s all about bringing in as many people as possible, while cutting costs everywhere you can. Not so if you have a small group of true fans. Like Kevin says,

Pleasing a True Fan is pleasurable, and invigorating. It rewards the artist to remain true, to focus on the unique aspects of their work, the qualities that True Fans appreciate.

It becomes about producing quality work. There’s no pressure to “sell out,” to rush the next book/CD/show, to swindle fans into buying less-then-perfect work. You can directly relate to a 1,000 people (especially with the help of the internet).

I especially love the implications for the future of free samples. I know people (some near and dear to me) who think giving away anything as an artist is a waste. I’ve been told that, even though it would mean less up-front exposure, I should submit writing to magazines for printing, not post them on a blog for free. But people can’t be fans of yours unless they know you exist. If giving away one piece (a story, a song, what have you) starts fifty more people on their life-long love affair with your work, all the better, especially when you consider what a True Fan will do to spread the word.

Maybe I am overly optimistic to believe that. At the same time, I know many of my favorite artists are ones I learned about through free work. In addition, when I see an artist who makes a conscious effort to treat their fans properly, as people on whom their livelihoods depends and not consumers to be taken advantage of, it makes me want to support them. So I go out, and I buy the extra shirt, the CD, the poster, even if their material is available for free. It’s the sort of relationship that used to dominate every economy, and the sort of relationship I would like to engage in with you. (Which is why, while I’d love to be paid for my writing eventually, this blog is still free.)

Is this a better path for today’s artists to take? I think so. Printing-on-demand is getting cheaper and easier all the time. The internet isn’t going to start shrinking anytime soon. And it seems like this may be more rewarding, not only monetarily, but psychologically. Make your art, and find a small group of people who love you for it.

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