Midwestern Robot

How to Marie Kondo your creativity—part 2

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We could have saved sixpence. We have saved fivepence. (Pause) But at what cost?

—Samuel Beckett, All That Fall

Real world aside, this experiment is paying off. It took a week to complete Day 1 (Writing—digital), but I feel the difference every time I sit at my computer.

For instance, I never realized how much energy it took to steel my mind against the digital mess of a jam-packed file window. In that nano-second before I decided to search instead of browse, I would sublimate a pang of disgust. But now that my files are organized, opening that window gives me a small jolt of energy instead. It’s like savoring a sip of Peets instead of enduring the taste of lesser coffee, just to get the caffeine. 

Day 2. Writing—physical.

Having tidied the digital files, today I move to the physical ones: binders, loose papers, the diary from 8th grade, a dozen blank books friends have given me “to write in” that are too pretty to write in, countless  journals and notes and playbills and newspaper clippings.

Most of this has been living in my office, in a grim oak bookcase from 1993. Already, I’m certain this is not going to work. Digital files are one thing, but words on paper feel sacred—and, in almost equal measure, outdated and forlorn. How am I going to get rid of any but the most obviously useless?

Step 1. Pile everything on the bed.

photo of a pile of binders and papers
Here goes.

Or, in this case, on the floor. At first, I wanted to cheat and extract one item at a time from the bookcase. But as soon as I said, to hell with it, and starting piling, I realized two things:

  1. Binders have no touch appeal. In their plastic-i-ness and random colors and Sharpied spine labels, they don’t shout “creative synergy!” but instead mutter “windowless computer lab.”
  2. I almost never use them. When I need something, 99% of the time I pull up the most recent digital draft instead.

This is annoying to acknowledge, because a few years ago I created a binder for every full-length play I wrote, every class I taught, and every category of shorter writing. Old drafts, notes, contact sheets, programs, feedback, everything was filed into these binders. I spent countless hours making tabs for different kinds of writing exercises. I bought document sleeves to put programs and cast notes in. I labelled each binder on the spine for easy reference and put it in the bookcase. And then, I almost never opened them again. 

But I’d put so much work into hole-punching and binding. Was it for nothing? And what about all the journals and notes that have no digital equivalent? 

Step 2. Sit down with an expert.

Jill Howe has been there.

For advice, I turned to storyteller and producer Jill Howe, who has been posting beautiful photos of her tidying process all year. We met at one of my favorite breakfast spots, Over Easy, and Jill convinced me that the papers are tamable.

Over corncakes, Jill confided, “Before, with storytelling I did everything on paper. And I would keep every draft, so I’d have like 20 drafts of a story. I mean, it was kind of fun in the beginning, like, ‘Look at all the work I’m doing!’ But if you’ve told a story now and then you tell it again in two months, you look back and go, ‘I ended the story like that? What the eff was I thinking?’

“So now, when I do a piece for a show, I have the final draft and that’s really the only paper I keep. I don’t need the 20 drafts that got me to that point.”

But Jill admitted that there’s the stuff that’s easy to toss, the stuff that’s easy to keep—and then there’s everything in between. Luckily, she also had a solution for this, the largest category. “Are you familiar with Evernote?”

Step 3. Get some apps.

Jill converts me to Scannable right at the table.
Scanning at Over Easy.

Jill uses the notes-app-on-steroids Evernote and Evernote’s free Scannable app to digitize and organize all the in-between stuff. “The app takes a picture, immediately crops it to the frame, and turns it into a high-quality image,” she explained. “You can make folders in your Evernote for all the different categories, and scan directly to those.”  

Jill also has a WiFi scanner that she keeps on her desk, along with a tray for day-to-day stuff like bills and receipts. “When the pile gets deep, I pull out the scanner,” she said.

She recommends the Doxie, which runs about $200, handles multi-page documents pretty well and promises to sync easily with all major cloud services including Evernote and my pick, Dropbox.

Step 4. Hold each document…

Photo of my dog Nola looking at documents
Sacred is a matter of opinion.

Once you’re set up with a scanner or two, you’re ready to:

  1. Pick up a notebook or stapled pile of something.
  2. Turn each page.
  3. Decide whether to keep the whole thing, toss the whole thing, scan selected pages, or scan all the pages.
  4. Put the binder in a donation bin.
  5. Thank and then trash every page you can possibly live without. 
  6. Trash sacred words? Like, in an undignified recycle bin? 

Step 5. Have a bonfire.

photo of empty binders and papers
Anyone need some binders?

About that whole written-words-are-sacred thing I was feeling? Jill’s been there, too. “I’ve been carrying around journals since I was in college,” she told me, “you know, repressive, horrible poetry. And you know, that whole corny thing about, does it spark joy? It just reminded me of things I didn’t want to remember. So I asked a friend, ‘hey, can we build a fire in your backyard?’”

So instead of tossing my outgrown scribblings in the recycle bin, I’m collecting them for a bonfire, first day it’s warm enough to sit outside around the fire pit and toast some marshmallows.

Step 6. Stay motivated.

photo of Jill Howe's library.
Jill’s desk. My goal.

Jill advises taking before and after pictures to remind you of why you’re doing this, and to help fine-tune your work. “There’s something about taking pictures,” she said. “I would declutter a space, take a picture of it, and—I couldn’t see this in real life, but when I’d look at the picture I’d say, ‘that’s still too much.’ And I’d go back and get rid of more.”

Now that I’m actually going through each item, I’m kicking myself for piling everything on the floor. I hate the mess and this is taking way too long already. But that’s exactly why the pile is brilliant. I’m extra-motivated to move quickly so I can get what I want: a digitized library of documents, journal entries, and notes that I can access from anywhere without ever having to dust.

Thank you, Jill! Thank you, Marie. And thank you, Samuel Beckett. 

Midwestern Robot

How to Marie Kondo your creativity—part 1

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What happens when you lay your creative work out on the bed, hanger upon hanger, sweater upon mismatched sock?

I’m not talking about the whole of your creativity, just the part you’ve expressed in some tangible form—all the stories,  paintings, set designs, half-finished orchestral scores, and that one note on a napkin about the couple in the coffee shop. I wonder what happens if you hold and thank each item, let go of the ones that don’t bring you joy, and store the rest in a way that truly serves your creative life going forward.

To tidy a home, Marie Kondo works a category at a time: clothing, books, etc. So that’s where I’m going to start. For my creative work, the categories are Writing, Teaching, Submissions, Films & Audio.

Day 1. Writing—digital.

Each category also gets two subcategories: Digital and Physical. Let’s start with digital writing.

Step 1. Lay out your digital writing on the bed.

To do this, I opened my local drive and my Dropbox to display all my documents on my big iMac screen. What a mess—a motley assortment of inconsistently named files, some organized in folders, others loose.

lots of file windows on the screen
What a mess.

A challenging thing about digital writing is that often there isn’t one final, unchangeable version of a piece. Even if a play has been produced, you might continue to tinker with it, thereby creating new versions of the file. For stories, you might have one tailored to live performance, and another to submit to literary journals.

And even when you have a “perfect” draft, what about all the previous ones? Part of me wants to delete them, so I have just one file per play or story. If some scene or line got cut along the way, I probably don’t need it, right?

But then I remember my first playwriting teacher, the late Fred Gaines, saying that at a certain point you should go back to the first draft of a piece, to reengage with your original idea, before you “perfected” it. That’s one of the most useful pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard. As you change and grow as a writer, you might come back to an early draft and see it differently, a process that could take you in a different, more exciting direction.

Then again, you don’t need to keep every single version of every file. Sometimes that feels too heavy. Argh, how to decide? Luckily, we have a plan that supports making the keep-or-toss decision quickly and decisively. 

Step 2. Create a beautiful storage cabinet.

This is one main folder that will hold all of this type of creative output. I’ve created a folder called Writing. Unlike one of my old folders, WRITING, it’s not in all caps, and suddenly I like it better. I created it in my main Dropbox folder so it’s accessible from everywhere.

We’ll build shelves for this beautiful cabinet in a minute. First, we need to make it easy to toss what we don’t want.

Step 3. Create a Compost bin.

This is a folder named zzzCompost (the zzz keeps it at the bottom of the folder list). This is where you toss files that don’t bring you joy, but it’s better than your computer’s trash bin.

In a month or a year, you can open zzzCompost and pull something that sparks your interest (watch out for worms), or you can make permanent deletions. For now, it allows you to remove files and folders with abandon. One of the perks of digital writing is that it doesn’t take up much space, so you can afford a nice big zzzCompost bin.

Step 4. Create another bin for ideas you haven’t written yet.

I called this zzUnassigned so it sits just above the Compost bin. This is for ideas and web links and anything else that’s interesting but hasn’t found a home yet. I like the name Unassigned because it makes those ideas feel important. They are wanted and valuable, they just haven’t been given a mission yet. 

Step 5. Create a limited number of shelves in your cabinet.

Each shelf is a subfolder for one type of creative work. I experimented a lot here. First I tried detailed subfolders like 10-Minute Plays, Full-length Plays, Stories for Performing, Stories for Reading. But this gave me too many shelves. So I ended up with something much simpler: one folder for each medium, like Plays, plus my two bins.  

Step 6. Hold each document...

In your mind’s eye. Thank and release the ones that don’t bring you joy. Remember you’re just moving them to the zzzCompost folder, so this doesn’t need to take forever. 

Step 7. For each piece you keep, create a folder, place all drafts of that piece in it, and move the folder onto a shelf.

From all 57 drafts of your novel to 1 draft of a one-minute play, each piece gets a folder. Otherwise, files get crumpled in dark corners instead of standing up in neat vertical folds. A folder also gives you a great place to put notes, research, and anything else  related to the writing of this piece.

If you’re not already using a consistent file-naming system, now would be a great time to start. I’ve started naming my files Title_of_piece.dd.mm.yy—for example, Bolshoi Bathtub.021619. If the piece is a related document, reflect that as well—eg, Bolshoi Bathtub.cut scenes.021619. I’m not going back and renaming everything, but going forward this makes the contents of each folder easier to survey.

a neat folder hierarchy.
The After. Much better.

Next up: Physical Writing.

To complete the Writing category, I have to tackle the physical stuff—all the binders, papers, books, and stapled pieces of writing crowding my bookcases and table tops. I might even pile them on a real bed.

Midwestern Robot

Is this your week to stay off the couch?

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Part of a couch
Not necessarily the enemy, but possibly.

If this doesn’t sound like a challenge, you are probably awesome. Probably you travel a lot, or spend your evenings creating art. Maybe you work out or play board games or engage in small home improvement projects after dinner. In any case, for you the couch is not a symbol of exhaustion, defeat, or your mother’s projected self-image. Read no further, you’ll have no idea what I’m talking about.

Everyone else, consider joining me.

For fellow Midwesterners, this is an extra-ambitious week in which to launch a challenge. It’s  the week of -50 windchill Wednesday. It’s also the week of January-into-February, the two top contenders for most depressing month of the year (though I’d still argue for March).

And it’s the week of a friend’s first divorce mediation, so I’m watching someone I love finally come to terms with their worst mistakes after it’s too late to fix them. If you’ve been here, you know that witnessing that kind of pain requires either extreme detachment or full-time care,  and I have neither. Watching him deteriorating while he simultaneously grows more compassionate and appreciative is messing with me in a way I can handle only by burrowing on the couch and watching The Durrells in Corfu.

But this is the week I’ve chosen. Or rather, this is the day I woke up thinking about a week off the couch. So here we go.

Here are the rules.

  1. Don’t sit on the couch for a week.
  2. Don’t lie on the couch for a week.
  3. Don’t touch the couch for a week.

Doesn’t mean you can’t watch TV, or read, or nap, or burrow. Just don’t do any of that on the couch. 

That's it.

It’s not like I’m expecting life to suddenly become easier or more amazing, but I am curious to see what might happen. If you decide to join this challenge, I’d be curious to hear about your experience. And also, what makes it hard or easy for you to stay off that big piece of furniture this week.

And…go!

Midwestern Robot

Creating an attention paperweight

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An actual paperweight.

My friend Julie sent me a great piece about Mary Oliver’s essay “Of Power and Time,” that counsels on protecting yourself from distractions in order to write. This comes up a lot for me when I’m journalling, which is pretty much the starting place for any other kind of writing I do.

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions…But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation.
—Mary Oliver, from Upstream: Selected Essays, quoted in Brain Pickings

Sometimes it’s the thing I’m journaling about that sends me away from the desk (“Susan asked me about–Oh right, I forgot to email Susan–I’ll just do that and finish journaling”…which I never do). Other times it’s just self-doubt (“This isn’t a worthwhile thing to be writing about”), or other perfectly valid thoughts that are nonetheless counter-productive and unwelcome at the journaling table.

Being at Hawthornden Castle enabled me to write so much–not because I didn’t get distracted, but there was a lot more time to entertain the distraction and then get on with it. Also, there was no internet to feed my distraction habit (“what’s the weather today?” “what does yeoman mean?”).

But here, technology is embedded into my personal space. I can’t turn off my phone. I’m sorry, I just can’t. What if I get an emergency call or text from Max, a deeply depressed person I love and worry about constantly? What if what if what if?

Then there’s the chinkle of Nola’s collar and click of her nails as she trots over to see if I’m ready to go to the park. No I’m not ready, but maybe I can take her and come back and finish. (Of course I won’t come back and finish, the workday will have begun. The to-do list and the deadlines will take over.)

Enter Insight Timer.

It’s a free meditation app that includes an easily customizable timer that—and this is important—you can add ambient sound and interval bells to. Here’s why I love it:

  • The timer makes the experience finite and out of your control. Like being in class, you just write until a force outside you says “Stop.”
  • The interval bells provide just enough of a distraction to placate my addiction without taking me too far from the page. (“Wow another five minutes has gone by. That was long/short.”)
  • The ambient sound serves as a paperweight, holding down my fluttering attention. It provides a soft barrier to other sounds, and reminds me that this time is special.
  • It keeps my phone near by, so I don’t get nervous, but occupied, which for some reason makes me feel better.

Here's how I use Insight Timer for writing.

If you want to try it yourself, here’s how to create a reusable writing session:

  1. Download the app and set up an account.

    You can check out all the meditations and social features later; for now, just stay focused. This is about your writing timer.

  2. On the home screen, click the Timer icon.

    It’s that little clock icon along the bottom of the screen.
    Insight timer start screen.

  3. Set a duration for your first session.

    You’ll save this session later as a preset, so even if you’re not planning to write right now, create your preset so it’s all ready for you.
    Choosing a duration

  4. Choose an ambient sound.

    Click through the sounds to find one you like. You’ll want to keep your volume fairly low, so that the repetitiveness of the sound creates a white-noise effect, but loud enough that you’ll hear the interval bells.

  5. Choose your interval bells.

    You need to specify a few things: The time from start (like 5 minutes), the Repeat (add a checkmark), the duration between intervals (like 5 minutes), and the number of repeating bells (click the infinity symbol so the app fills the time with as many intervals as needed for your duration).

  6. Name your preset.

    The process differs depending on whether you run the session first, or are just creating it to use later. If you don’t see a red Save command shown in the screen above, click the 3 gray dots in the same location.
    Saving the preset

  7. To start a session, choose it from your Presets tab.

    There are all sorts of ways to copy and modify presets, but this should get you started.

Good luck, and let me know how it goes.