Grand Manan: Paradise on the Rocks

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A little island treat before the white stuff erases the beauty of green. Just click here for Grand Manan. 

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Around Sunset in the Graveyard

So, this is a hippie story. It takes place in the early 70s when Freddy Beach was still recovering from the Strax Affair which made the University of New Brunswick one of the most newsworthy campuses in the country for demonstrations and student unrest. You can read about that here, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with this hippie story.

This story takes place in a graveyard right in the heart of downtown Freddy Beach. 

I had hair at that time. In fact, it was almost down to my ass. I was a hippie. I wore beads. I had a leather vest with a peace sign painted on it. The peace sign glowed under black lights. I did drugs, mostly LSD, called acid at the time. My roommates and friends did acid as well. When we did acid outside in the summer and fall, it was in the Old Burial Ground, so-called because the first burial was in 1787. That’s a long time ago. Old.

We used to do hits of acid while sitting in a group of four or five people in this area:

Image 1

We talked to the people buried here and sometimes they talked to us. Well, not to me. But some of the members of the group engaged in long conversations with the long deceased. I was mostly quiet when I was on acid, you know, just grooving out on the dinosaurs and elephants parading in front of me. 

One member of the group was a hippie witch named Miska. Miska never sat with us. Instead, she lay down in one of the tombs; in fact, this one:

Image 2

At that time the cover stone was broken and whatever remains had been inside were long gone. After Miska dropped her hit of acid, she climbed into the tomb and lay down with her hands across her chest. She said that this made her one of the dead and made it possible for her to go on adventures with the dead people in the graveyard. She never told us anything about those adventures. We didn’t ask. 

One day, about a half hour before sunset, we were sitting in our favorite graveyard spot with one or two people talking to people long since deceased (not me though, I was watching dinosaurs) and Miska was in her tomb with her hands across her chest having adventures with the dead. We were all doing our thing when a couple passed by us on the sidewalk, right where it curves:

Image 3

Now, the spot where they walked was a fair distance from the tomb where Miska consorted with the dead, but it was still light enough to give a clear view of the tomb. 

I stopped watching extinct animals and elephants and looked at the couple. They seemed nice, probably in their late teens. They smiled as they approached us. We smiled back. Everybody  was smiling and it was one of those moments when everybody was happy and smiling at each other. 

It was around that moment that the male of the couple turned his head towards the tomb where Miska lay. And it was at that exact moment that Miska stopped gallivanting with the dead and sat straight up with her hands across her chest and her eyes wide open. And Miska had very wide eyes surrounded by black eye shadow. And she had very long, very black hair. And she was wearing a black dress. The suddenness of her unexpected movement could be very disturbing if you weren’t used to her. 

The male walker wasn’t used to her. In fact, I don’t think he’d ever seen anything like her before, at least, judging by his reaction. He screamed. It wasn’t even a man scream, it was a high pitched anti-man scream. And then he started running. He ran down the side walk, out the gates, across the street parallel to the graveyard (without even looking for traffic), up the street across from the graveyard and out of site. 

His girlfriend stood there watching him run away, leaving her at the mercy of whatever horror he deemed Miska to be. I seem to recall her making several faces, none of them approving of her boyfriend’s behavior until, after he was clean out of sight, she shrugged. She looked at us and one of the girls with us invited her over and gave her a hit of acid. 

We tripped out in the graveyard well into dark and her boyfriend never came back. 

 

When Gravity Catches Us: Thoughts on Thinking

Plastic

We live in two worlds; one’s outside, one’s inside.

The outside world is the world of earth, air, water and fire. It makes its own rules and we obey them. Walk off the edge of a cliff and this world gives you gravity. Build wax wings and fly toward the sun and it will suffocate you before you reach 30,000 feet. These are the rules of the world that existed long before we arrived. We’re the eggs; outside is the chicken. 

The inside world is in our heads and under our skin. It’s where we think and where we feel. It’s us…the eggs…and we also make our own rules but the outside world doesn’t necessarily follow them. We have to adapt our rules to conform to the rules of that other world. Walking off a cliff? Wear a parachute. Flying into the sun? Surround yourself with a space ship. 

This hierarchy of rules has worked well for about a million years, or since whatever date you deem human thinking to have begun back at the beginnings of the bicameral mind or maybe when we learned how to build a campfire without becoming the logs. If we come to a river where we think there should be a path, we build a bridge. If we need water for power, we build a dam.

This is not changing the rules; this is modifying them, and that’s OK: beavers build dams. 

The problems start when we ignore the rules or deliberately disregard them, like when we build thirty dams on the same river. Or when we remove masses of material from the earth and transform them into materials that never have and never should exist and then we coat the earth with them, like buttering the planet with poison. 

And you might ask: Why the hell would we do that? And I might answer: Because we convince ourselves that we’re not doing it…even while we’re doing it. For example, you buy the health wise, low calorie pasta bowl that cooks in just four and a half minutes in the microwave. When you finish the meal, you have a sense of doing something right, giving your body healthy sustenance. And you throw all that plastic packaging and the plastic bowl into the plastic garbage bag without thinking that what you’re doing is being simultaneously done by millions of other people. 

All that plastic.

When it comes to satisfying our needs and wants, we look at the good and ignore the bad. It’s called rationalizing and rationalizing is one of the highest levels of intellectual activity and very likely the key ingredient in the extinction of the human race. 

Some people talk about how logical the rational mind is, but there’s nothing innately logical about it. Logic says, “I’ll buy the smaller more fuel efficient car and be part of the solution.” Rational says: “I’ll buy the gas guzzling SUV because everybody else is buying the smaller cars, so it doesn’t really matter what I buy.”

It’s adaptive thinking. At which point you say, “Adaptation is good. It’s a survival mechanism that allows us evolve as the conditions around us change.” But there’s a big difference between adaptive thinking and adaptive evolution. 

Adaptive thinking wraps itself around the needs of the moment and justifies itself by meeting the needs of the moment, but we’re not going to physically adapt to a world with un-breathable air. We can live underground or in controlled climate housing or maybe even under the ocean, but we’re not going to walk in a park, canoe down a river or harvest a crop without some form of portable life support system, at least (depending on future technologies) not for several hundred or several thousand years. 

If we’re still around that long. 

Back to that thing called rationalizing. 

It creates a situation in which we create another world (the one we think we live in) and the real world (the one we live in). The problem here is that we’re so good at rationalizing that the world we think we live in becomes the world we live in. We convince ourselves that tossing that plastic water bottle into the garbage isn’t going to be harmful to the outside world because it isn’t harmful in our internal world. It’s just one bottle. Who’s going to notice? Sure as hell not the tens of millions of other humans throwing out plastic bottles every day.

Tens of millions. Every day.

That’s a lot of bottles. But we don’t see them. We see just our one bottle. We know the others are out there but we choose not to see them. It’s a conscious choice. 

This is scary. We need to come out of the cocoons of our inside worlds and live more in the outside world before gravity catches us without a parachute.

For more on Biff.

Throwing Seeds at LinkedIn

I find that I’m getting increasing numbers of invites to connect with people on LinkedIn and for the most part they’re not people I know or work with or am connected to in any way except their desire to sell me something I neither need nor want. 

Almost always the offer is totally inappropriate and demonstrates clearly that they haven’t taken any time to learn about me and find out what I actually need and what I’m interested in. This is spam. Anything that involves contacting someone you don’t know with an offer that hasn’t been requested and comes nowhere close to meeting the contact’s needs is spam. 

I joined LinkedIn to make contacts, participate in forums, write articles, post notices of personal promotions…and yes, I do advertise and market books, photography and writing workshops. But I post these in articles and status updates; I never send them to anyone’s personal inbox. That would be spam.

More and more, I’m seeing bios that read like badly written sales copy with their lists of features and skills, but with no connection to my needs. I have no need for someone who converts Flash to HTML5. If the dozens of programmers who’ve sent friend requests with this feature so outstanding in their sales pitch would take the time to read about me, they would notice that I’m not in the market for this. And if they were truly professionals, they wouldn’t send me spam. 

I realize that some people may be desperate to pick up any kind of work they can get, especially if they’re working for a start-up or starting a start-up. I’ve been there and I’ve made the same bumbling mistakes, and the biggest of those mistakes is tossing random seeds over a professional networking platform in the hopes that something will grow. 

It won’t. 

Those seeds should never be tossed. They should be planted with the same care you would bring to planting seeds for a tomato bush. It takes time, research, thought. It means knowing exactly what your greatest skills are and identifying who can benefit most from those skills and then building profiles of those people and organizations that clearly define what they need and what you can offer to meet their needs.

Tossing seeds over LinkedIn not only wastes your time and the time of the people you spam, it strips you of your professionalism and puts you in the same league as a telemarketer with a list of random numbers.

Thinking Hurts

Silver

Thinking hurts.

Think about it.

No, don’t think about it…you’ll hurt your head. But if you were to think about it, if you were to endure the pain, you might ask yourself, “Why does thinking hurt?”

Let’s look at this question and see if we can answer it. Without thinking. The obvious truth throws itself across the path of our search for an answer: Because it’s complicated and it means looking at things from all angles whether I’m comfortable with them or not and maybe being faced with opposing views that demand that I make a decision or even a series of decisions with one decision creating the need for yet another decision and possibly another and another and maybe I don’t agree in my gut with those decisions but I know they’re right in my mind and this might just require that I act on the decisions arising from my thinking and that means getting off my ass and doing something or I could just sit and think and rethink and counter think and get all angsty and depressed because I started thinking and now I can’t stop because once you start thinking it’s like taking your thumb out of a dam that’s leaking all around you and now you can see those leaks.

Got that?

You could drown in the truth…just by thinking about its possibility. I guess that’s what really hurts about thinking: Once you start, you have to decide whether you’re going to finish the thought, or whether you’re going to drop the thought and just let it dangle in your head like a discontinued piece of yourself.

Having to finish a thought can be tough for the above started reasons: It can lead to truth. Truth can be a bitch. You might have to do something.

Not finishing a thought can be tough because its incompleteness will park itself just under the surface of your days like a broken tile that you have to continuously avoid stepping on.

And then there are the unobvious truths about why thinking hurts:

  • We might have to stop fooling ourselves
  • We might have to admit we were wrong
  • We might have to admit someone else was right
  • We might start asking questions
  • We might start getting answers

And who, these days, really wants to hear answers to their questions? I mean, isn’t it enough to just ask the question? And just leave it at that? Personally, I have a hard time dealing with the questions. I don’t need a bunch of answers to complicate things. When the questions are just hanging there, swinging in the wind, thumbs out for a ride on the answer bus, you don’t have to do anything but drive past them. But if the bus stops…

Ouch!

Something to think about.

 

(www.biffmitchell.com)

Can Anyone Write a Novel?

I suppose I’d have to pare this down to the essence of writing a novel: Can anyone tell a story? On this point, I’d have to say, “Yes, anyone can tell a story, but some will tell a mesmerizing story while others will put their listeners to sleep.”

So really, it’s a matter of teaching poor storytellers how to tell their stories better, and the further question is: Can poor storytellers be taught to tell their stories better? And again, I’d have to say, “Yes, of course! But they’re really going to have to work at it.”

So how do you teach someone who can barely explain how to boil an egg how to create a cast of exciting characters acting out their dynamic lives in a compelling world?

They Have to Change Their Life Style

First, they have to change their life style. In the decade plus that I’ve been teaching creative writing workshops, I’ve had a surprising number of students who didn’t seem to belong in a creative writing workshop. They weren’t necessarily shy or quiet spoken; they just didn’t generate much interest in what they had to say. Just gonna give you the facts, mam. They spoke with a flatness that left their words forgotten seconds after they were mouthed. This was just the way they talked and it carried over to the way they wrote (at least 99.99% of the time). It was the way they thought, the way they lived their lives. They lived on the left side (of the brain, that is) where everything is well-delineated shades of gray or simply black and white. The trick was to get them to use the right side of their brains on a daily basis…not once a week or two or three times a week, but every day of the week and, if possible, several times daily.

This one actually has an easily identifiable solution, but not so easy for the student to actually do. It doesn’t require a lot of effort…it can be done without any preparation and no follow-up is required. It’s a no-brainer, which is why I call it mindless writing.

I’m not going to get into a lot of detail on this technique. If you want more in-depth information, I suggest you buy Dorethea Brandte’s book On Becoming a Writer. The basic gist is:

  • Set a time to write (5-10 minutes)
  • Pick a topic (could just be the word banana)
  • Write about it without stopping (no editing and no stopping to think)
  • Stop when you reach the time you set

Done in the morning, this exercise primes the right side of the brain for creative thought throughout the day. Done several times a day, it helps break down the barrier to the right side of the brain that left-brainers put up because they’re not used to thinking that way, they’ve been taught not to think that way, or they believe deep down inside that they don’t have the ability to think that way.

Again, done several times a day, mindless writing can change the fundamental way a person views their life. I’ve seen it happen repeatedly over the years.

They Have to Read

They have to read. And read. I knew a man who wrote one of the longest novels I’d ever seen by a first time novelist. He boasted that he never read fiction and rarely read non-fiction, but he wanted to be a writer. He asked if I could take a look at his novel and I agreed. Just a few paragraphs into it, I could see that he really didn’t do a lot of reading, but I read the whole thing. It was painful. Descriptions were matter-of-fact with no emotional connotations, the characters were lifeless throwaway caricatures, modulation was replaced by a flat line of overly technical and inert action, and there was no real point in calling it a story because there wasn’t much of a storyline. He obviously didn’t know how to tell a story and I’m assuming it was because he just wasn’t familiar with the concept of story.

Writers earn their storytelling ability by reading stories, writing stories and reading more stories. What they do when the read, is listen to storytellers telling stories. And that’s a learning experience.

Maybe at some point in a writer’s life, if they’ve written a dozen novels and write every day and don’t have time to read because they’re writing…maybe these writers can get away with not reading, but I’d bet a week’s wages they read a lot before they wrote those dozen novels.

They Have to Write

Yep, they have to write, consistently, every day (whether mindlessly or otherwise). I’ve had many students who couldn’t write worth a damn when they started my Writing Hurts Like Hell workshop and they couldn’t write much better by the end of the workshop, but they followed up on what they learned in the workshop and kept writing on their own, every day, and it paid off. One of them even wrote a couple of plays that were produced and received great reviews.

Writing is a cumulative thing; the more you do it, the more you build on it and the better you become at it. It could be just five minutes of mindless writing in the morning. It could be five minutes on a scene written over lunch. The morning writing and the lunch writing might be bad writing, but they’re writing. Professional athletes have good days and bad days, but they perform consistently and that consistency makes them professional athletes.

There’s a deluge of exercises, processes, procedures, methodologies, approaches, techniques, and insider tricks and tips currently being pushed on the burgeoning market for would-be writers, especially in the explosion of baby boomers with lots of time to write and lots of storytelling to do. But they’ll need to change their life style, read more and write more before they finish that first novel.

Storytelling has never been for the privileged few, it’s always been for those who want to tell a story, and putting the story on paper or in cyberspace is just another way of telling the story. So, yes, anyone can write a novel.

(Visit me at biffmitchell.com)

Can Creativity Be Taught?

NOTE: I have a workshop coming up on creativity and a friend sent me an email asking if I really think that creativity can be taught. Here are my thoughts on that.

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I’ve been teaching creative writing workshops for over a decade. I’ve had students who I thought were wasting their money taking the workshop because they were so gifted I didn’t think they needed any kind of workshop to do some amazing things. Unfortunately, they couldn’t put those gifts together long enough to actually write a novel, or even a short story.

I’ve had students who seemed to be totally without a right brain hemisphere. Anything that wasn’t strictly logical, in proper sequence and in complete conformance with pre-defined expectations was beyond anything they could even begin to comprehend.

But here they were, both groups, taking a workshop on creative writing. They wanted to write a novel. They wanted to make something like they’d never made before. They wanted to peer into that well of unpredictable thought residing in the neglected regions of their right brains, and maybe surprise everyone, including themselves.

Granted, some people will never make any kind of meaningful contact with their right brains. They’re not interested and they have no curiosity about what they could do; they’re satisfied to just keep doing what they’ve always been doing. They love the security of the known and predictable and don’t want to change a thing. Even if there might be a powerhouse of creativity waiting to be released. They don’t want it.

But for most people, there’s always that tantalizing sense of curiosity, those moments when they look away from the leger software or the charts and graphs of the next big proposal and they think for just a few moments about a story or incident they think would make an exciting novel. But they don’t know where to begin or how to begin. And once the sweet mists of the fantasy evaporate, they certainly don’t believe they could ever write such a novel.

These are the ones who make up the majority of students in my workshops. They’re the ones during the introductions in the first class claiming they have no talent or talking mostly about the boring work they do or saying almost nothing at all. But they listen to what one or two others say about what they want to write, and they hear their excitement and they’re getting goose bumps as they shift uncomfortably in their chairs.

On one hand, they feel like they don’t belong there. On the other hand, they are there. They’ve paid money to be there. They’ve taken time off from whatever else they were doing with their lives to be there. And I point that out to them in the first class: “You’re all here because you want to be here…because something inside you brought you here. And it wasn’t my awesome hair style.”

That something is the urge to create. We all have it. In some of us, it boils over when we’re still babies, using Lego to construct massive buildings at the age of .5 years. In some of us, it’s squashed under guarded pressure to keep it at bay like a lump of coal that forever falls short of becoming a diamond. For some, it’s always just under the surface of their lives, flirting with their minds and inspiring the occasional daydream of writing a novel or a play, painting a mural, learning to play the guitar and writing a song…just under the surface. Like an itch.

Those ones that need to scratch are the ones who sign up for my workshops. They come in shy and unsure but, if they survive the first class, they’ll be back.

It’s that first class with a stupid simple exercise that gives them a glimpse into their creative potential. In that first class, we do the mindless writing exercise. Everyone writes for 10 minutes without stopping to revise, judge or think. They just write, even if they go off topic, even if they just write, “I hate Biff. I hate Biff. I hate Biff.” for 10 minutes. When the writing is done, everyone reads. And after each person has read, the entire class applauds.

I’ve seen the most creativity-resistant people gaze in awe at what they’ve written when they’re not judging or evaluating something they’ve done, when they’ve just let themselves do it without any expectations or guidelines. The total anarchistic bohemian rhapsody of it.

We do a lot of mindless writing throughout the duration of the workshop, and everybody reads, and everybody applauds. And we do other things, like mental and physical awareness. You’d be surprised at how much of life you miss when you’ve spent a lifetime learning to focus on one thing at a time and disregard everything that doesn’t apply to the moment. We lose sight of just how much there is in a single moment. We see the glorious tips of mountains in the distance, but we miss the shard of sunlight turning a patch of snow into a glittering bed of light. Or we see one glint of the sunlight and miss everything else.

One of the exercises we do is called Knowing the Moment. We go outside to the street or a park. We look around and make notes of things we see. We close our eyes and listen. You’d be surprised at what you’ll hear when you’re actually making yourself aware of what you hear. Noises in the background or in the distance that are always there, but un-noticed. With our eyes closed, we smell the air. On a city street, where you might usually smell food cooking in restaurants, you might smell the after shave and perfume of passersby. On one of my favorite streets for this exercise, you can actually smell the aging of older buildings. We ask ourselves, what can I feel? Generally, it’s cold or hot. On closer inspection, it could be a barely detectable current of air. To tie it up, we identify the single most overwhelming thing that affects our senses. It might be something you’ve experienced on your way to work and it’s always been there but you’ve long since stopped noticing it. But when you’re truly in the moment, you’ll be aware of it.

We do mindless drawing. It’s like mindless writing. You put pen to paper and let the ink flow where it will flow. Initially, the drawings will be clumsy but, after doing this for a few weeks, the drawings will start to take on a more defined and repetitious form as the exercise increasingly stimulates the right side of your brain. I find this is a great exercise to do at work. Every hour or so, I draw for a few minutes. It keeps my creativity stoked during the day…and it’s relaxing.

Want to really surprise yourself? Try asking yourself questions. If you take a certain route to work, ask yourself why you take that route. If you eat the red ones first, ask yourself why. Few of us question our lives. We just accept them as they are and to some extent ignore them rather than explore them. Questions about the mundane things in your will force you to use both the left and right side of your brain. Careful with this one, though…you might end up changing your life.

As an instructional designer, I’ve learned over the years to design adult learning according to the 20/80 principle which states, usually correctly, that out of a body of information, an employee only needs 20 percent of the information to accomplish their tasks. We do this with our lives, the difference being that we focus on a lot less than 20 percent. I’ve noticed this in young people. As they grow older, they ask fewer questions. They’re less and less interested in the things outside their immediate realm of action and interest.

Add to this the fact that creativity is rarely rewarded or sought after in our schooling systems, which are geared to manufacture productive members of society, working and spending machines. Carved and sharpened to work and consume, we tend to ignore all those things that don’t systematically contribute to a material end. If it doesn’t get us a grade or a job, it may as well not exist.

Yes, some people are highly creative and use that creativity to excel at everything they do, but these folks are in the minority. The rest of us follow the rule book and stay safely snuggled up inside the box where we shield ourselves from any thoughts, ideas or originality because it might bring attention to ourselves and we might actually have to do stuff we’re not used to doing.

This is pretty much the condition of most of the students who attend my workshops. They’ve cut themselves off from being the 100 percent of themselves to being at most one percent of themselves. They know the 20 percent to get the job done, but they’d be lucky to know whatever infinitesimal percent to get their lives done.

But I have yet to see a single person who stuck around for the second class who didn’t get back in touch with their creative selves and start thinking with the right side of their brains like they’d never lost touch.

So, can creativity be taught? Probably not. That would assume teaching a person who’s never been creative, which would eliminate about 100 percent of the human race. At one point, no matter how early in life, we were all creative; we were all open to our right hemispheres, we all asked questions and wondered about things. But somewhere along the line of life, we lost it.

But, we can be reminded of what we’ve lost and then do the things we need to do to get it back.

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If you’d like to hear more about the workshop, send me a message at biff@biffmitchell.com. Next workshop is June 16 – 17.