Midwestern Robot

How to Marie Kondo your creativity—part 1

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.

Is this your week to stay off the couch?

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.


Creating an attention paperweight

An actual paperweight.
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.

The Chicken Little question, answered

Do the climate change deniers have it right? Are we all just a bunch of Chicken Littles running around screaming, the sky is falling? I have struggled with this question—not only because I respect science. Which I do. I respect people who gather data like the amount of CFCs and water vapors and carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. But I have struggled mainly because I have problems with the story of Chicken Little itself.

I resent the way, no matter which version you read, the narrator always tells the reader things than Chicken Little can’t possibly know, so we spend the whole story judging her. The narrator always tells us right from the start that it’s an acorn that hit her, even though she doesn’t see it. So we know all along that she’s jumping to conclusions, getting the whole farmyard riled up for no good reason.

Climate change deniers appropriate this story as proof that people who go around saying, “the sky is falling, we’ve got to tell the king,” are wrong. And this is hard for me to say, but those idiots are right on. I hope you can indulge me just for a few minutes, to think this through, because, as much as the Chicken Little story bugs me, I believe it the definitive folk tale for our climate debate, maybe even for our entire fate as a species.

Let’s start with Chicken Little. And I don’t know why she’s called Chicken Little because her size has no impact on the story, not like Snow White who’s really pure, or Puss in Boots, who likes to look gallant so he can impress people.

But anyway she’s walking along in nature and gets bonked in the head by something—which we know, thanks to the narrator—is an acorn. Only she doesn’t see it. She looks around, nobody in sight, no obvious cause like a bird flying overhead. So she thinks, “Oh no, I don’t see what hit me. It must be a piece of sky! Oh no, the Seychelle islands are disappearing. The sea levels must be rising. I’ve got to tell the king!”

And off she goes, and runs into Henny Penny. That’s another irritating thing. Everybody Chicken Little runs into has a rhyming name that has no payoff, story-wise. The name Henny Penny would be great if the character is frugal, always saving a penny, and that has some impact on her character arc. Maybe it will be her ruin!

Or maybe it will save the day. Like she’s been hording this one grain of corn for no reason, but when the dam is about to break due to “global warming,” Henny pulls out that one grain that everyone scoffed at her for hording, and lodges it in the right place, and the dam holds and the farmyard is saved! But no. I guess it was just the easiest rhyme the writer could think of. I’m still in awe of this story, though. Bear with me.

So Chicken Little tells Henny, “The sky is falling! I’m off to tell the king!” And Henny’s like, “Oh my gosh, I’ll go with you!” Off they go, and run into Turkey Lurkey—Lurkey not because he lurks about and gathers intel which is used against our friends at some crucial point, but just because it rhymes—and they tell him, “the sky is falling, we’re going to tell the king!” “Woah,” says he, “I’ll come with!”

So along they go, and gather a few other friends with lamely rhyming names, Goosey Loosey and Ducky Lucky, and finally Foxy Woxy. And they tell Foxy, “The sky is falling! We’re off to tell the king.”

And Foxy’s like, “What? No way!”

“It’s true! Chicken Little’s got the bump on her head to prove it!”

“Woah, that’s intense,” says Foxy, “Well I happen to know where the king is right now, I’ll take you to him!”

So they all follow Foxy through the forest, this is another CHEAT in the story. The narrator tells us where Foxy is actually leading them, so we can all laugh at how gullible they are. He gets to the entrance to his den and says, “The king is right through there.” And they file in, and Foxy traps them, and kills them, and eats them. End of story.

So why is this brilliant? What makes this smug and lazily constructed story the one thing we should all be reading? It ain’t the acorn. It’s what Henny does about it.

If we really believe the sky is failing, why do we allow ourselves to take one ride in a car that burns fossil fuel? Or spend one minute longer in the shower than we need to? Or accept even one plastic fork at a picnic?

If Chicken Little had thought, “I’m Little but I’m mighty,” maybe she would stayed right there and searched until she found the cause of that bonk on the head. But searching for a piece of sky is lonely. Talking is comforting. Talking lets us focus on our listeners. Are they getting your message? Do they believe us?

I can’t stand here and tell you the glaciers aren’t melting, or there aren’t holes in the ozone. But how do so many of us, including myself, respond? We read the emails and sign the petitions and write to the oil companies and recommend the documentaries.

We’re so busy spreading the word that we walk right into the fox’s den, the fox with the bright red hair and the distractions that keep us thinking we’re doing something when in fact, all we’re really doing, is talking.