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Paralyzed By Opportunity: The Firehose of Ideas



It’s not ideas that count, it is the execution of those ideas.

Every day of your life, as a creative person, you are going to be assailed by your mind with 227 ideas. (There’s no rhyme or reason for this number, yours is likely to be much higher.) The challenge as an artist is how to capture and filter all the incoming ideas, and make sense of them. Your life’s work depends on the projects you pick and the projects you leave behind. But first we have to deal with the firehose.

I am a victim of this malady, even at 51. My ideas come much faster than I can keep track of them. Remembering that they are merely ideas, I can bat a number of them back into my subconscious without much effort. These are the big ideas, the huge ideas, ideas that I will be working on for years. A rock opera and stage performance, for example. Or one of four screenplays that are haunting my creative imagination, and are in various stages of being written.

But it’s the flow of ideas that’s the issue. How to make sense, to set priorities, and filter out the noise.

FIRST: Your Capture System.

How do you make note of the rush of ideas so that you can evaluate and revisit them later? If you don’t have a capture system, you can’t flush the idea out of your available memory space to make room for new ideas. The little idea (about a color to use in a new painting, for example) will swirl around in your mind, taking up endless cycles of your processing power, while you try to “not forget” and yet “not pay attention” to this little idea. The key is getting the idea down in a form you can recover easily. The better your capture system, the easier it is for you to push the rush of ideas into LATER (painting), LATER (writing), LATER (music) categories for mulling over and processing later.

Your capture system is only as good as the confidence you have in your ability to re-find and recall the energy that was expressed in the idea. As you get better at capturing, your mind will get better at letting go and freeing up space for other ideas, or (as many of us have to tend to) the work you have to do for a living. Your creative life will permeate your working life if you let it. And this is a good thing. Until it’s overwhelming your work life. When you begin calling in sick because you stayed up all night working on a piece, you’d better think about the choices… (Sorry, I’m not trying to be your parent, just a friend along the artist’s path.)

SECOND: The Filtering Process.

When the firehose of ideas is fully in bloom, you will be interrupted frequently by flights of creative fancy. The first step is to remember ideas are just ideas, it’s the execution of the ideas that makes you an artist. The second step is to know when the idea is valuable and needs to be captured, or if the idea is more like a feeling. When your inspiration is a specific detail about a project you are engaged in, the capture should be fairly simple. (Do this-this-and-this next time you open the song file.) When your idea is more meta (or not connected directly to any action, but more of the grand idea variety) you can often toss it back into the supra-consciousness knowing that your big-ideas require thousands of inspirations, and often it’s the gestation of a meta-idea that will become the framework for future projects. These too are easy to jettison out of our real-time memory with the confidence that they will return in more evolved ways later.

Then there are the ideas that are fleeting and hard to capture, hard to nail down, more inspiration and feeling than detail. And these are the ones you need to pay attention to. Entire song compositions can happen for me in the first 5-minutes after I wake up in the morning. If I don’t pay attention those gifts are gone. And it’s often not convenient for me to immediately turn on the recording studio and spend the next 30 minutes trying to capture the essence. You may have similar epiphanies upon waking or in the moments just before you fall asleep. At this point, you have a decision to make. If this “movement” is worth capturing, how can I do it and still maintain my obligations for the day. (Getting my kids to school on-time, for example.)

THIRD: Radical Capture of Ideas

This one takes some creativity. And depending on your medium, you can create your own unique ways of getting at the heart of the idea without actually having to execute on the entire idea in that very moment, which in this case is not feasible.

I’m going to take this idea and parse it into my personal methods based on the creative medium that’s being activated. For me that’s either: music, expository writing, poetry, and visual art.)

Radical Music Capture

  1. Leave yourself a voice mail. Just sing the idea into your voice mail. If you’re traveling, on a bus, or walking down the street on the way to work, don’t miss the little idea that hits you. Call yourself on the phone (or use a recording app on your phone) and leave a message. With music, my melodic ideas are short and simple. But later they can be unpackaged into full songs.
  2. Use your phone to video your guitar or piano playing. Since I’m not all that versed in writing down my musical ideas, I turn on my selfie camera in video mode and record myself playing the guitar pattern. If the guitar has an odd tuning, I can spell that out at the beginning of the video.
  3. Play it into Garageband, or some other quick/simple tool for recording. Sometimes I want a tempo track, or a second part. I can fire up Garageband (Mac) from anywhere (heck I think it’s on my iPad too) and grab a few measures of my idea using the internal mac microphone. Or I can use Garageband to give me a simple tempo or drum pattern and then use my phone to video capture the guitar.

Radical Writing Capture

  1. Evernote is your friend. Since the little app Evernote exists in the cloud, it’s always available on  your phone, your computer, or your tablet. The notes you make on one device are synced to all the devices. YAY.
  2. Remember the outlining technique you learned in school? Outlines rock for getting the structure of a writing piece down before you ever write it. If you can do the outline in 3 minutes and get on with your day, because you have other things that simply have to be done first, go for it. You can write from your outline when you have the time.
  3. Poetry. Yes, this isn’t really a capture device as a radical way to store verbal information in a short period of time. Often when I’m writing a longer piece about some emotional topic, I will also write the same story in a poem. If I can get the essence (for me) down in a poem, the I can return to write the larger piece later. And there’s a lot of cross-over between poetry and music… so there’s that.
  4. Text Editors are your friend. No formatting, just text. Save with a descriptive name and recall it later. (Word is a hog and takes a while to load.)

Radical Visual Art Capture

  1. Sketch. I can design 10 website ideas in 3 minutes with a pen and piece of paper. Get good with your hand skills. Draw out the idea for execution later.
  2. Quick Capture with PPT or other image-driven app. Some of my bigger ideas are better facilitated by a graphic program. And when at my corporate job, occasionally all I had was PPT. So I got really good at sketching out ideas in Powerpoint. Sure, they were not even close to the finished form that I wanted, but the idea was captured and I could let it go, knowing that I could return to my actual canvas or drawing pad later to fully realize the idea.
  3. Take a picture or screen grab of what you were looking at when the inspiration came to you. A lot of artistic work is derivative, don’t be ashamed of that. We’re all “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

You’ve got to listen and tune into the rush of ideas, but you cannot let them overwhelm you. This is a hard trick. The pull is strong, for me, to drop into musician mode and ignore all the other modes that are required of me (dad, worker, boyfriend). But I can use various capture and filter techniques to grab the incoming ideas and put them in my capture system. Later I can map out a plan for them to become works of art, or just one of the 277 ideas that shot through me today.

Just keep going.

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John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)

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Letters to a Young Artist in the Digital Age

In 1929, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet was published. Ten short letters of encouragement to a 19-year old hopeful poet. And the master gives wonderful advice that still heartens any creative artists around the world. Wonderful advice about craft, not showing your work too soon, keeping the fire alive inside even if you never get the recognition for your poetry. It is still an amazing set of letters. As if written directly to us. While I have not read Rilke’s letters for over ten years, I know the spirit and ideas he expressed have kept me hopeful and energetic about my own writing.

My Letters to a Young Artist in the Digital Age has the same intent. Bring a new perspective to the creative process. This creative live is a path and not an end destination. Few of us will become Steven King, or George R. R. Martin, or J. K. Rowling. For those of us still on the path towards recognition or financial success, there are quite a few discouragements and barriers. It can be a struggle to keep your creative self alive and healthy.

In these letters I am in many ways writing to myself as a young aspiring writer. But I am also aware that I am writing these letters for myself as a man of 51-years who is still seeking expression. That alone is a success story. I am still at it. I am still writing, singing, and playing music as if I were still in the race. But of course, it’s not a race, it is life. And if you are a creative person, you have a long life ahead, and if you are lucky, and perseverant, you will continue to create well into your old age.

And in many ways I am writing these letters to my future self as well. Encouraging my current, 51-year old self, to keep writing. I have the magic perspective of time travel to bring all three of these “artists” together in my mind, as I write the little ideas for keeping creativity as a main goal of life. This is my goal: creativity is a life way, if there is anything I can do to help others find their path let me share my own experience.

So, let’s start there. This is my experience, in my 51+ years of being an artist. I have had some successes and many failures, but I’ve always gotten back up and brushed myself off, and continued with the work. Along this path I have come up with some ideas that help me maintain my hope, my energy, and my focus as an artist. And I am writing these pages to you, if you are on the same journey. What we need is friends along the path, to cheer us on. These letters are me, cheering you on. And in many ways, I am cheering myself on, as I continue to create and believe that my life’s gift is in this creating.

I hope you find creativity in your life. And if I can be of any help to you, let me know. I am over here in my own tunnel of life, furiously creating myself, and I will share what I can of the light for us to forge ahead.


John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)
permalink: http://uber.la/2014/09/letters-to-a-young-artist/

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image: my morning spot, john mcelhenney, cc 2014

Perseverance and Habit: This Creative Morning



Do you love the work? Is it life and breath to you?

The creative craft is about perseverance. Staying with it. There is no American Idol of creative process, there is no short cut.

Very few people get to be Taylor Swift. The rest of us must make due with the mundane life AND the creative life in parallel. While we are working at our craft we are also working at making a living. If you can find the way to do both with the same work, you are lucky. And perhaps unlucky, too. Beware the paid working gig that saps your creative juice. Many a copywriter has never surfaced from the pithy and promotional.

So what does it take to fall in love with your work?

Time at craft is probably my most important motivator. If I am writing, or playing music, then I am in the groove. When I am away from the craft for any extended period of time (writing or music, in my case) there is some internal resistance to getting back in there and getting back to work. It’s as if the studio becomes a hostile environment. Or that anything other than doing the work has become preferable. An afternoon wandering a book store might feel inspirational, but it can also be avoidance. The best remedy for avoidance is to jump back in. Face the chair, the empty page, the “record on” button.

Being in the process of creation is the antidote to ennui. Resistance can be boredom. Or fear.

How do you fight the blahs?

Habit: Habit is great if you can get there. Finding my quiet space took 40+ years. Perhaps you can find yours earlier in your path. For me, the morning hours are sacred. No one else is awake. I brew my cup of coffee and crack open the laptop for a session. Some mornings I know exactly what I will work on, some mornings the inspiration actually pulls me out of bed an hour earlier. It’s as if my spirit anticipates this pre-dawn release. Finding this quiet time, and making a habit of rising when I wake up and simply writing was a process.

The morning pages of the Artist’s Way is a great technique to cultivate this inner drive and dialogue towards your creative dreams. And in the habit of writing and aspiring towards something bigger than yourself, you’ll find your mind wakes up ready to go, ready to create.

Today writing is easier for me to jump into in the morning. I would like to be back at a place in my life and living space where music is as accessible. (Maybe this is an excuse.) The process is about creation, the medium you choose is less important. It can start with writing your morning pages, and progress to writing or painting or composing. The habit is the thing. Your spirit will begin to crave the expression time. And the momentum grows the more you practice this creative grooving. This habit has formed the heart of my creative craft. I am never at a lack for time to create. No one is waiting for me at 5:30 or 6:00. Only me and my imagination.

Structure of ideas: Another part of my momentum building process is creating structures. If you can design containers for your music, or paintings, or writing, you can pour your ideas into the containers. These “structures” have an energy of their own.

When I came up with the idea of doing these letters, for example, I had a quick win with the first six letters. I didn’t have to work at coming up with the next letter each morning. I was on a roll. The structure, and idea, of creating a series of inspirational, how-do-you-do-it, letters was enough to pull the first six ideas out of me, almost without effort. And then I got distracted, or decided to take a break. I was not trying to complete a book of letters overnight. I almost felt the process was too easy. Perhaps I was creating something of vanity rather than something of value. But I had to let that idea drop in the trashcan. There is no place for doubt when you are building your structure or your habit. Doubt is the killer.

No, I did not doubt the process when it came easy. And I don’t think I lost inspiration when I turned my writing back towards other things. There is a confidence I have in the process, in the writing, that was not worried that I would lose the energy for completing the letters. And I had a sense that giving the next six letters a bit of time to percolate, was a good idea. I am not concerned with losing the thread.

Capture & Retrieve: Finally, developing a good capture system for your various ideas, is a key ingredient for perseverance.

At the moment, I am committed to keeping my focus on the livelihood branch of my creative life. I need a more stable income stream to support my family and the things I want to accomplish in the next period of my life. And with this commitment I am using my drive towards music, as a reward. (I’m wondering if this is some type of avoidance? I’d hate to think I’m losing the ideas, rather than storing them away.) My internal commitment is this: until I find the next client engagement (which requires focus, energy, and dedicated time and action, to find it) I will not jump off into any large musical projects.

But it’s the capture system that has me confident that I am not losing any of the ideas that are still coming along. If you can capture the essence of an idea into a system that you will not lose, you may be able to return to the inspiration and build up the full idea. In music, this can be a vocal idea, a guitar progression, or just a piece of music that is particularly inspiring. In my toolkit I have several processes for capturing my ideas.

My iphone video makes a great capture tool for musical ideas. I can turn the camera on myself and my guitar and essentially show myself the idea on video. I can call out the tuning, if it’s non-standard, and then proceed to show myself the progression. In this way I can get an idea down in a matter of minutes, rather than spend half a day recording the rough tracks. The idea is, that this seed will be enough to pick the song idea back up when I have the half-day to devote to it.

The problem is retrieval. I have about 6 of these ideas in various formats in various locations of my digital life. I need to get the three ideas off my phone, and put them in a folder on my laptop so I can get back to them, even if my phone is stolen. I will do that directly after finishing this piece this morning. Once I have the “idea” captured, I can move back to the activities that require priority processing. I’ll be back in the musical fold, but I know it takes a much larger commitment of time, so I will delay the gratification on these ideas. And, so far, the momentum has been easy for me to pick back up from these video snippets.

Find your simple capture system for when the ideas come in inconvenient times. Then make sure you can rekindle the spirit from your capture, and that you can catalogue them and find them later, when you’re in need of inspiration.

The keys to perseverance:



Capture & Retrieval.

John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)
permalink: http://uber.la/2014/08/cutting-deep/

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image: creative mornings, fillipo podestá creative commons usage

Focus Yourself: Cutting Away the Distractions



Not everything is a distraction. You cannot create 24/7. Things like sleep, play, exercise, love, day dreaming are essential elements to finding your balance in life. And work, if it is not your art, can be a massive, but necessary, distraction that will keep you away from your real work. Seek out distractions like mind clutter and eliminate as many of them as you can. This is why late late nights and early mornings may be your best times for creative production, there are far fewer distractions.

But distractions are not the only enemy of your creative talent. Maybe the more important discussion is not distraction but focus. Focus is your superpower for killing distractions and getting on with your creative work.

How do you create focus in your art?

One the ways I have found to build creative momentum and give focus to my production is to imagine the series or sequence of work that can become fascinating to you. Note it is you that is in need of the structure. If you can fascinate yourself with an idea (one self-portrait a week, one song a day) you may find a track that pulls you along, that finds illumination of some deep creative recess in your brain, and you will begin working the idea like a prayer, ceaselessly dreaming up new approaches or chapters of the project.

Before you can capture the imagination of others with your brilliance you’ve got to fascinate yourself. And it is in the fascination that you may be able to find the momentum to carry you along. And as you have successes in your process, and continue to find joy in the craft of building this larger body of work, you will be refining your craft. Really, that’s the goal, at this stage in your life. Sure, you are creating a body of work, but as a young artist you are really trying to find the niche that gets you super-conducted as an artist. Only through this super-conductiveness, this faster and faster acceleration of your art, can you build up to the super-collider of joy that will become your life’s work.

Of course, you realize, I’m speaking more from theory than practice here. At least in terms of finding the path to achieve escape velocity. At 50, I am still working for a living. I am still looking for the super-conductive path that could pull me off the planet and into orbit. But I’m not complaining. At this point, distraction is less and less of a problem for me.

Here are a few of the distractions that I have eliminated.

  • TV – I might watch a show (GoT, Mad Men, Orange is the New Black) but I don’t turn on the TV, ever. I don’t even have one.
  • News – TV news might be the worst for me, because I cannot get the visual images out of my brain, but even newspaper, newsfeeds, Huffington Post, are all distractions.
  • Partying – some is good, too much is a dead-end
  • Driving my body to exhaustion – yes, in the name of art it is all too possible to let inspiration destroy our energy by going too far
  • Games – I love a good game as much as anyone, but they will suck you in and suck out some of the most valuable hours of the day
  • Desserts – too much dessert and I wind up fat and tired
  • Reading, Listening, Exploring – these are wonderful and essential things in moderation, but they can also be a distraction

Find your distractions. Learn which ones feed you, charge your energy back up. And eliminate or limit the ones that pull your spirits and motivations down.

Today, you still have most of your life ahead of you. But the sooner you discover your energies and contain your passions by capturing the excess energy in your creative process, the further along the path you will be by the time you reach my age.

The part of the process that is essential to understand: this is a marathon that you are running for the rest of your life. If you sprint around the track to win in your twenties, you may wear out or burn out too soon. Find the glowing ember in your mind, that you can count on during times of highs and lows. Find the project that consistently pulls your energy and focus back. Give yourself ceaselessly to your art. Make this project your mistress. Make love to your canvas, or guitar, or word processor. The successes of live and love will follow in the long race. But your pace, stride, and cadence are more important to establish at this point in your life.

I am still working on my training. I am still striving to eliminate the distractions from my life. And, of course, I am still seeking the trajectory that will take me up and out of the world of non-creative work. The cool thing is, I’m still a believer. I am still arcing towards my creative projects. I am still trying to erect creative structures I can lean into with my imagination.

To pull back from distractions is to pull up on the controls of your art and aim skyward.

If you can find the key to your motivation and commitment you have unlocked the third rail, the one with the electric power to turn up the speed on your own bullet train.

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John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)

supportive references:

image: expo station, william cho, creative commons usage