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Posts Tagged ‘creativity

I want to write. Am I doomed to be a barista?

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Check out my post at the University of Northwestern.

Written by kirkistan

April 28, 2017 at 4:13 pm

On Writing: Is This Where The Magic Happens?

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“…and then a cascade of miracles occurs…”

Yesterday I heard myself spinning a tall-tale to a quiet cluster of skeptical students.

as if

as if

I told them of a magical place they can go were writing connects the dots in a mysterious and inexplicable fashion. It is a place you arrive mostly clueless about what will happen next. But then you begin marking a blank page and words form into sentences and dots arrive and connect. The not-knowing of this place takes a bit of courage to sit with, but the payoff of processing your not-knowing is immense.

These were writing students, so many regularly visit this place. Some nodded in agreement. Some stared back blankly, though I suspect this tall-tale was their own experience as well. Some stared blankly refusing to participate no matter what—which is, of course, that great student default-setting.

John Cleese spends his retirement talking about this place (try here or here. And especially here). He characterizes it as more of a time than a place—which I completely agree with. A time away, which becomes a space bordered by time limits. I use timers to get to that place. This place where the magic happens is also called “flow” or “in the zone.” I’m certain you’ve experienced it as well.

For the working writer, I’m convinced that this place is bordered on one side by strategy and analysis and research.  And on the other side is marketing or talking to an editor or pushing “Send.” But in between: this magic layer where creation happens. It’s a place equally daunting and exhilarating.

Is there really such a place?

I believe so—see for yourself.



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

John Clease: How to Make God Laugh

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“Tell Him Your Plans”

Listen to the entire interview here:






Written by kirkistan

February 13, 2016 at 5:00 am

“What Will I Be When I Grow Up?”

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Start Your Process Early to Answer Life’s Recurring Question

This question will not go unanswered.

As a kid you quickly volunteer answers: firefighter, ballerina, basketball player, scientist, pilot. It’s right that action-jobs attract kids. You may defer answering it as a college senior. You may say, “I’m not sure. We’ll see what comes up.” You find yourself saying it in your first job, hinting that “This is OK, but it’s not quite the right fit.” In fact, you may think it through a career.

I’ve had two different conversations recently with people suddenly seeing the horizon of retirement off in the distance. Both said some variation of “I’m not sure what I want to be when I grow up.”


The question is tricky because it sounds like an all or nothing deal: you do this or you do that. Binary. One or the other. But the truth is more like life is filled with all sorts of opportunities that are concurrent. You must pick. You must choose. If you don’t pick and choose, chances are good you’ll simply slide into being entertained. That’s not bad, it’s just that being entertained generally pacifies the urge to create.

And yes, I am talking about creating. Because one assumption behind the “What will I be?” question is “How will I take action in the world?” I argue that the sooner we find ways to address that question, the better off we’ll be at every stage of life. One old model of retirement was that you put in your time for 30-40 years (at something you hate or just tolerate), and then head to the golf course in Florida or Arizona to be entertained until you tip over into the grave. Today people approaching retirement are looking for ways to keep making a difference. The lucky ones have both their health and some sense of the art or craft or service they simply cannot live without doing.

I’m thinking about this today because one central piece to my social media marketing class asks students to pursue their passion publicly using every social media avenue open to them. This is a difficult question and commitment for these students to make. I like the exercise because it forces them toward the larger life question. I like the exercise because it initiates a process that, if they follow it, will begin to answer that question.

Locating that thing we are passionate about involves experimentation, of course. And if your work does not leave any time for locating your art/craft/serve/tribe, is it possible that in 30 years you might still be asking, “What will I be when I grow up?”

I hope not.



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Boiling Down

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Locate Essence

Over at Dumb Sketch Daily I’ve attempted a couple abstractions (per my brave declaration), and the sketching process is starting to become clear: recognize the heart of an image and work with the essential shapes. A few of my art-minded interlocutors (Kerfe, Larry Zink, and Laura of course) have contributed to my slow understanding of the process. It’s really a hands-on thing: One learns by doing.

Chester Arnold: Thy Kingdom Come II, 1999. Oil on canvas. (di Rosa Art Museum)

Chester Arnold: Thy Kingdom Come II, 1999. Oil on canvas. (di Rosa Art Museum)

Today’s writing process involves at least one project where I must also reduce and abstract. But “abstract” seems the wrong word: I must locate the essential bit and then work to make that piece clear, understandable and compelling. Oddly enough, clarity sometimes flows better through comparison than it does through paragraphs of didactic copy. And that may be the point of abstraction. An image can remind of something entirely opposite. Abstraction can become an emotional bypass. But it need not be anti-intellect. Especially if it causes someone to stop and think.

Looking for essential bones of an idea may be my favorite thing about writing: locating the bones and laying them bare. More and more I’m finding those idea-bones are best expressed through analogy or metaphor, where a simple image paired with simple words replaces long and labored explanation.

Boiling down and locating essence may be a life lesson for me. It’s far easier to do for clients than it is my own ideas.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

August 19, 2015 at 2:40 pm

Something Old. Something New. What is Your Process?

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Mostly borrowed. Likely blue.

We like the myth of the genius inventor or the brilliant writer. We want to hear more about the talent that simply cannot be stopped: so much to write and create.

But pull back the curtain on their work and you see lots of failure and many bad first-, second-, third-, twenty-fifth drafts. Just ask Edison. Or Hemingway. L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz was rejected so many times he kept a journal he called a “Record of Failure.”

Let's break out: new from old.

Let’s break out: new from old.

That’s why our ongoing conversations are so critical. These conversations—with friends/colleagues/spouse, with media, with a keyboard, with ourselves, with God—are the process by which we sort all kinds of life-stuff. An artist friend has challenged me to attempt an abstract watercolor. I’m no artist, but I do produce dumb sketches every day. It helps to have the bar set very, very low.

The only way I can move forward with an abstract image is to think of the entire project as a conversation. But this conversation is between a bit of burnt sienna, a dab of periwinkle, a waterbrush and a slice of Strathmore 90# paper. I call it a conversation because I am only bringing the elements together and have no clue what the result will be. I call it a conversation because I await the new thing that often results from the interplay. I’ll likely not call it art.

It’s the “something-new from old” that energizes creators. Today’s copy project also requires a conversation between old elements, a clarified message from my client and a new audience. Again: I’m trusting process rather than brilliance. Because any brilliance that happens grows organically out of process.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

August 17, 2015 at 7:40 am

Where Can I Buy a Fine-Art Mode?

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The Beauty of Knowing Nothing

I don’t have a fine-tuning mode that tinkers with physical detail. I draw and it is mostly crude. I cut plywood and pine shelves and they are rough enough to make my craftsman-father scoff into his hand. I make dinner and it is mostly broad-stroke stuff that requires very little finessing. I will confess my popcorn is a work of art, combining yellow and white kernels, salted and buttered and mixed to a sensuous, savory smack of flavor. And I am learning how words interact on a page—though it is slow going.


How does someone get to the point of crafting from rough cuts to fine finished detail? It is possible that in this age of ordering clothes, pizza and romance from a button on our mobile devices, that some things still take time. Some things require beginning at the beginning. The question for each of us: do I have the courage to begin at the beginning? To know nothing for a time and do things badly?

The beauty about not having been taught drawing is that you are in a position of the acquirer: the process of figuring it out might take a while, and you will most likely continue to figure stuff out as you go, but that process is yours. There are no shortcuts and no tricks. Just the plain practice of drawing, screwing up, and drawing some more.

–France Belleville-Van Stone in Sketch! (NY: Watson-Guptill, 2014)

You cannot buy personal processes. Not really. You have to make them from scratch—those processes that help you make meaning in the world. And you have to begin at the beginning.

Mistake will be made.

You will make those mistakes.

And that’s OK.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

In Praise of Doing Things Badly

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Rough draft as collaboration tool

I keep talking about rough drafts and dumb sketches. That’s because providing something when expectations are low is such a great way to share ideas. It’s a way to tell ourselves what we are thinking. It also a way to tell others what we might think together.  But with the pressure off.

It’s also a great way to learn.

Some may say, “What?  That guy needs a rough draft? What a chump!”


While it is true I am a chump, it is also true that presenting a rough draft—sometimes just the stub of an idea—can have an electrical, clarifying, vivifying power to move you forward. This idea, laid bare in all its clumsy, awkward glory, may just be the beginning of something important. Something even that holds your imagination for a year or five.

The rough draft laying there—all vulnerable and wrong—brings out the best in those who look on. Often evoking pity rather than harsh, fluorescent critique. And that makes for a great conversation.

What will you do badly today and share as a rough draft with a colleague?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Brian Eno: “Everything Good Proceeds from Enthusiasm”

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“Some people are more prepared to take advantage of opportunities than others.”

I’ve been a fan of Brian Eno since his Roxy Music days.

I’m not always crazy about every track from Mr. Eno, but he is always interesting. Speaking of Roxy Music here’s a first listen of Bryan Ferry’s new album “Avonmore.”



Via Valeria Maltoni, Conversation Agent

Image credit: NPR

Written by kirkistan

November 12, 2014 at 10:08 am

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