Don't play what's there, play what's not there.
Last Saturday night Juan and I perched on a balcony above a musical tempest of smooth fusion from the Yellowjackets jazz quartet.
Although the Jazz at the Bistro club offers lots of tables around the stage, we’ve grown to like sitting above the performers. We catch the little gestures, the nods and shifts that precede the change-up in music when the saxophonist hands over riff rights to the keyboardist, and when the keyboardist, anticipating his own crescendo, shares a look with the drummer who agreeably splashes the transition with a cymbal crash.
Spontaneous, responsive, alert — their smooth give-and-take the result of the hours and days and weeks — actually years — of practicing and shaping their music together. So much so that this morning an impression of them is still here - the notes rippling in my mind — and their faces too. The unconscious smiles, the patient watching, the closed eyes while their fingers moved not by dictation but quick-witted inspiration.
Over the course of their 90-minute performance each musician had moments in the spotlight as well as fusing into the group sound. It looked comfortable to be a part of that group, but not easy.
You can’t sit on your butt and hide in a group like that.
You gotta move.
I've learned this.
I remember last fall I was anxiously fretting about the fact that I was not writing. I felt stuck. After about a year of blogging memoir-type essays and sending out a weekly email, I’d sputtered out and stopped in September. Doubt crippled my momentum. It felt so difficult to restart — what would I write and why would someone read it?
My goal to be a writer felt lost. All through the fall I struggled with feeling like a failure.
Then in December a glimmer of a thought came to me. I remember recalling that overused quote attributed to Albert Einstein, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”
What had I been doing? Repeating the same negative thoughts. Riding an endless merry-go-round of self-doubt.
"Stop!" I thought, "Knock it off!"
Then, "Do something!"
So I joined a group.
It is a virtual group; in fact, the participants live across the country and overseas. Offered by creative professional coach Dan Blank, the original program, called Mastermind, was a 3-month virtual class offered to people who wanted to advance their profession, or aspiration, as writers or artists. Each weekday Dan would record about a 10-minute video on various topics on being a creative professional. We were connected in the digital group space called Slack where we each had our own channel to post questions and leave comments as well as have digital conversations with the group.
Did I qualify as a "creative professional?"
I signed up anyway.
My commitment: To show up.
So it's been about nine months now (I re-upped a few times). During those months I broke my arm so could only type left-handed, traveled to China and got Internet-blocked, chose my book topic on Johanna Van Gogh, researched comparative authors of historical fiction, restarted this blog, found local writers and the Saturday Writers community in St. Louis, decided to retire from my professional marketing job at year end, traveled to Amsterdam and Paris for some on-the-ground research, and gathered lots of tips on publishing, editing, the craft of writing...it's a universe. I learn one thing only to turn a corner and realize there's another galaxy out there.
Of course, the very best part has been getting to know other creative people in these classes, and the unique, inspiring pursuit each is making to fulfill her (and his) creative dream.
Over the past nine months there have been some key ideas that helped keep me moving. These might apply to you too:
- You are what you do. I claim to be a writer. A writer writes. Stop waffling. So now, in addition to the weekly blog, I journal for 30 minutes each day and have started a regular 15-minute "timed" writing, in which I write fast, no editing, on my book.
- Experiment with small steps. At one point Dan wrote, "The first step (or next step) doesn't have to be perfect. It simply needs to be a step. It can be an experiment. It doesn't have to be a commitment you never back away from. Take small steps each week."
- Find others. Writing may be a solitary sport but a local community of like-minded people, other writers and artists, can be a support network of learning and empathy and information. My goal is to continuously expand these contacts.
- Double-down. What am I half-baking? What would it look like if I wasn't?
My mission statement in these blogs has been to share stories of perseverance through challenges, and how this connects us to what matters, and each other. This story of my last nine months may be a little tame as a story of perseverance (especially in comparison to the September 11 blog of an escape!), but I figure the journey's barely begun. At least I'm moving.
Steps I’m taking to explore writing a book
Plot Party: Thanks to the generosity of six friends willing to give their time I ran an experiment last week called a Plot Party. I tested an idea to run a collaborative group to dig into what readers of historical fiction especially like (and don't like!), how they select books and whether they like collaborating on creating their own plots. Based on their feedback I've made some adjustments and will try another one on October 10. My goal is to understand the preferences of historical fiction readers more deeply in order to get closer to that audience.
If you are interested and live in St. Louis, are a regular reader of historical fiction (books about a period at least 50 years ago) and are active on social media - let me know soon. Space is limited -- I'd love to have you join.
Suspending the Mastermind Class: Earlier in the year the second 3-month class I took was called "Be the Gateway" and the most recent one was "Mastermind Pro." The next class has a great name and approach, "The Creative Shift," for those who are looking to make that intentional move into a full-time creative career, or to take their current creative work to a new level. I made the difficult decision not to renew. I will miss the Mastermind but have decided to use these next three months to double-down on the previous lessons learned and concentrate on ending my current job strong before retiring at the end of December.
And thanks to the accountability of this weekly blog, I have to keep moving.
Let me end with another quote from jazz innovator Miles Davis:
I'm always thinking about creating. My future starts when I wake up every morning...
Every day I find something creative to do with my life.