Managing Creativity: Workspaces

IMG_0488

Awhile ago I took a course on designing “breakthrough” innovations through Stanford Continuing Education. The instructor highlighted IDEO, a design consulting firm, as an organization particularly adept at fostering creativity and innovation. IDEO has a unit called the “game lab” that comes up with ideas for toys or games, which they then pitch to major corporations like Mattel. This is one of the firm’s most creative teams; the most creative of the creative, and I was curious to see they managed their creative process.

Two things really stood out to me. The first is the notion of an Idea Wall. Whenever somebody has an idea for a new product – on the way to work, in the shower, etc. – they write up a brief 2-pager about the idea and stick it up on the Idea Wall. Then, when the wall accumulates roughly 40 ideas, the entire team congregates, goes through the ideas one by one, and together they select the 10 strongest ideas to develop further. The rest are discarded (or perhaps filed away?).

I really resonated with this idea because they have a designated space for random thoughts, budding ideas, and stray epiphanies. They also have a systematic process by which to process and evaluate these ideas, so there is no concern that ideas will get sucked into a black hole of disarray, thereby banishing the next great breakthrough from seeing the light of day. Ideas get captured, ideas get processed, ideas are prioritized, and the best ideas are then acted upon.

In an attempt to translate this to my own life, I have started keeping stacks of post-its and 3×5 index cards in the places I am most likely to generate new ideas: next to my bed, in the car, in the bathroom, and in my purse (for when I am out running errands, waiting in line, or early to an appointment). I keep it to one idea per post-it or index card, I stack them in a designated space, and every week I go through and process them. Truthfully, I think the system needs some tweaking, because I never seem to process fast enough. My prioritization process needs some work – you’ll notice IDEO only acts on 25% of ideas generated, whereas I work with well over half of my ideas, probably because my ideas tend to cover a new scene I might write, or a way to bridge two sections together. Maybe I need to process more often?

The second idea that caught my attention was the IDEO game lab’s weekly cleanup. As a company, IDEO likes to whip up basic prototypes as early into the design process as possible. The sooner you can work with a mockup and get it into the hands of potential users, the thinking goes, the sooner you can start testing and improving your product. Developing a smartphone app? Mock up your pages on Post-its and stick them over a smartphone screen. You will immediately notice problems in flow, missing functions, and non-intuitive design elements. The game lab has a lot of shelf space dedicated to materials and random parts, because part of rapid-fire prototyping means improvising products from pipe cleaners and balloons and masking tape and construction paper.

This can get messy quickly, but rather than constrain the mess, the game lab has chosen to designate Friday afternoons as designated cleanup time. This creates an extended period of time in which cross-fertilization and happenstance may further the creative process, but it also designates a finite interval for each step of the process. Plus, you know that things will get cleaned up regularly! As someone with a sewing space, I can attest that the random play of materials produces some of the best products, but that clutter can get overwhelming. A clean workspace is a palette cleanser and necessity for thinking clearly. Friday Cleanups would be a great way to manage the dueling needs for order and chaos, empty space and creative messes.

Any thoughts on how you might incorporate either of these ideas into your creative process? Or have you seen other techniques that you find intriguing or effective?

Photograph Friday: On Slowing Down

IMG_5744

I was on my way to Oakland for a crafternoon with some friends – running late, actually – when I spotted this by the side of the road. It was too good to pass up! I try to keep my camera on me at all times, and at moments like this, I’m glad that I do. As I got out of my car and circled back, another woman, dSLR in hand, commented to me that she just had to pull over, it was too cute. Agreed.

I had been a bit stressed at the thought of arriving late, but as the other woman pulled out, I decided to take my time with this shot. A long time ago, I chaperoned a “photo camp” run by several National Geographic photographers who spent 4 days teaching underprivileged youth from Chinatown all about photography, and one of the key lessons I took away that weekend was the importance of “working” a shot. Sometimes your initial frame is the best, but sometimes the magic doesn’t happen until you reach shot 19 or shot 20. You need the patience, the creativity, the flexibility, and the openness to get that far. Looking through my shots now, I can think of a slew of other angles I might have tried, but frankly, I’m just glad that I pulled over in the first place, and that I took the time to slow down, try out a couple different perspectives, and make space for creativity, wherever these moments might spontaneously occur.

(Snapped June 2013)

Embrace Potential Liabilities as Strengths (Lessons from Clara’s Cottage)

IMG_4238One of my favorite places in all of California is the coastal town of Mendocino, 3 hours north of San Francisco, although to say that is a bit misleading, since I have spent very little time in the actual town of Mendocino. About ten miles north, just outside a small town called Fort Bragg, lies my favorite B&B ever. Comprised of a series of three cottages, it is the place that sold me on AirBnB, and every time I book through that site, I find myself trying to recreate the experiences I had at this property.

My favorite is Clara’s Cottage, the first place I stayed. It is a perfectly compact cottage, 300 square feet, with a bedroom, shipshape kitchen, and a cozy couch where I liked to put up my feet and read for hours. The cottage has a lot of natural light, and because there is no shower in the cottage, the owners installed a tub right next to it, under a 100+ year old tree. At night, you soak in a steaming hot bath, with the sounds of the ocean in the background, and just unwind. Heavenly.

IMG_4197

(The tub is just around the corner from the bench!)

I made a return visit recently, and had the opportunity for several lovely chats with Tenaya, the owner. Before AirBnB, the cottages were monthly rentals, but several years ago she decided to try out the bed-and-breakfast concept.

“I was most worried about Clara’s Cottage,” she confessed, due in large part to the outdoor tub. The other two cottages are larger, more conventional properties, and she worried that the quirks of Clara’s Cottage, specifically the outdoor tub, would make it difficult to fill. “But it turns out the outdoor tub is the perfect screening mechanism.”

Those who would do well in an unconventional space are drawn to the cottage for its outdoor tub, those who prefer more, uh, conventional plumbing options, look elsewhere. I laughed when she said that. My initial reaction to the outdoor tub was, “Sure, I can roll with that.” Then I got to the cottage and tried it out and realized, “Wow, can I roll with THAT.”

Unexpectedly, the listing landed on the front page of AirBnB. Tenaya was caught off guard by this; a friend happened upon it and alerted her. Between the publicity from AirBnB and repeat visitors, the cottage is now quite booked up – I know, I tried to get it, and I couldn’t.
Isn’t that how life is, though? None of us come into this world fully aligned with societal conventions, and so we do what we can to fit in. Yet often the very quirk – so integral to who we are – that defies convention, and which we thus perceive to be a liability, turns out to be our biggest asset. I’ll bet you didn’t know there was a market for bed and breakfast rentals that mix the relaxation qualities of spa and nature, did you? It’s not a huge market, but Clara’s Cottage fills that niche quite nicely.

When I was younger, I spent a lot of time worrying about my little quirks that went against what society said I “should” be. I am terrible at small talk. I love learning what makes people tick, what makes their face light up, what motivates them, who they are and where they are coming from. I kept dragging new acquaintances into long, deep conversations about the meaning of life and their greatest ambitions, and it made for some awkward conversations, believe me! Especially in my late teens and early twenties, before I learned how to gauge who might be a good candidate for that type of conversation. So I tried to pick up that easy, ironic banter that people adopt when they first meet someone (and, sometimes, how they fill entire friendships). I felt awkward, the person on the other end felt awkward. It was like high school all over again.

Then I realized that there are people who hate small talk as much as I do! And they were more likely to enjoy these kinds of probing, philosophical conversations that I enjoy. If I stuck to a conversation style that was more genuinely “me,” I would be more likely to find people I could truly connect with. Those who prefer to keep up a sarcastic banter would never be interested in pursuing much of a friendship – but then we wouldn’t have a lot in common anyways. It is a self-selecting process. I realized it was better to fully embrace myself – quirks and all – and try to live as the best possible version of myself, than to try to live as a pale imitation of what I thought others wanted me to be. All that energy I would pour into trying to mold my square peg into my perception of other people’s round hole, I could instead devote to developing, refining, and improving the square peg. And I would be much happier in the process.

(Photos snapped September 2012)

Photo Friday: Portland Cafes

IMG_5727 In Portland, the baristas even give hot chocolate some flair.

Some friends recently moved up to Portland, and I took the opportunity to spend a couple weeks in the Rose City. The husband is in my little writers accountability group, and some mornings we wrote together for an hour before he headed on into work. I would catch a ride from him, then seek out another café in which to continue my writing. There’s something really nice about taking in a city by its cafés (even moreso in Portland, a city teeming with cafés!) It gives you an excuse to venture off into different quarters of the city that you might otherwise not see, and especially if you linger in a neighborhood café for a couple hours, you can really pick up the vibe of that particular neighborhood. Young and hip; yuppie; trendy; established with families, the type of place where the regulars all know each other; salt of the earth folk; artsy; well to do.

It is a real luxury to stay in a city longer than it takes to catch all the major sites, but in some ways I think it is totally worth it. I’d gladly make the tradeoff between fewer cities but a deeper dive into each. The cities I do see tend to make a deeper impression on me, and it provides more opportunity for chance encounters and the small moments that make life so worthwhile.

Managing the creative process: on finishing

IMG_4354

On Saturday, I submitted a 5,000 word excerpt to a writers conference I will attend in late June.  There are 10 of us in the workshop; between now and the last week of June, we will each read one another’s work, and then come together for one week under the mentorship of an instructor (a published author + teacher) to provide feedback and learn.

With those 5,000 words under my belt, my “usable words” for this book project hovers at 35,000.  By “usable words” I mean prose that has been shaped into some semblance of a workable draft, in order to distinguish it from the one-off paragraphs that I scribbled in the middle of the night, the reams of freewriting that contain just a handful of interesting nuggets, the essays I started and stopped because I could not figure out where they were going.  If I added those to the word count, I might be at 70,000+.  But that prose cannot be used in my project – not yet, anyways.

A crude rule of thumb states that you need 50,000 words for a novel.  When writers takes up National Novel Writing Month every November (or NaNoWriMo), the premise for the challenge is that if you write 1,000 words daily, at the end of the month you will have 30,000 words, which is enough for a novel’s first draft.  Just think – a novel draft in a month!  I tried it once and got to Day 3.  I do have a friend for whom “Novel #4” is his “NaNoWriMo novel,” so I know from anecdotal evidence that it is doable, but wow, is that a lot of words spewed out onto a page every day for one month straight.

Thanks to NaNoWriMo, 30,000 words has always been a milestone for me.  In my mind, 30,000 words meant significant progress.  It meant my idea had a shot at becoming a reality, it meant moving from the realm of “pipe dream” and into the land of “holy shit, I might just do this.”  It was like the invisible line between wannabe writer and serious writer.

On Saturday, I got there! I submitted my excerpt and did a little happy jig.  And then I rewarded myself by ordering a set of these – what can I say, I love quirky and I love supporting small artists.  I am a firm believer in rewards not just for the big goals, but also for the smaller milestones along the way.  Passion projects are rarely easy, and we should take time to celebrate our successes.

On a recent post about creating a daily writing habit, my friend Kevin pointed out that I had neglected the most important piece: finishing.  He makes a good point.  As critical as it is to “show up” regularly, these past few months, I feel my writing has improved because I finally began finishing pieces.  With every piece I finished, my skills expanded, which made the next piece easier to finish.  Or I pushed myself to be more ambitious with the next piece, or take greater risks.

I love starting pieces.  The thrill of a new idea, that initial rush of words!  And then I get stuck in the middle, uncertain what comes next and how to pull together all the loose threads.  Sometimes I find myself at a loss for words.  Before I gave myself this time-bound project with a distinct end goal (book finished, by age 30), it was easy to just store the offending piece on my hard drive, figure that someday I would come back to it all, and start something else (or stop writing for 6 months entirely).

I think we all get stuck for different reasons.  For me, it takes a lot of brain power and patience to work through the problems and come out with a solution at the other end.  And hey, this is supposed to be fun, right?  So why would I carve out an hour before work just to flail through writers block, feel like a failure, wonder if anything I’ve ever written in my entire life is relevant, and question my creative genius?  So much easier to just walk away and wait for inspiration to strike. I don’t pretend to have all the answers sorted out, but I thought I would take a moment and reflect back on some tricks that have worked for me, so far, in getting things finished.

Outside Deadlines (and the power of 1.0)

This is the classic, right?  You want to submit to a competition or apply to a writers conference, and so you need to finish your piece, much as work deadlines keep up our productivity.  This also works for smaller, regular deadlines, like when people form writers groups.  They know that every couple of weeks, they will be on the hook for a finished product.

In my first job out of grad school, whenever I found myself flailing in my project, I would email my boss to ask for a meeting in a week’s time, to go over my ideas for said project.  This forced me to put aside my perfectionism and start sketching up rough ideas – better to walk into my boss’ office with something bad, than walk in empty handed.  I think of this as “version 1.0 creating.”  The key was that I knew I had to walk in with some semblance of a finished product.  Maybe it was an outline or proposal, maybe it was just a handful of strategies, but they had to have a beginning, middle, and end.  I did not blindly brainstorm.  I created down-and-dirty prototypes that were whole products, albeit crude ones.  If I had leftover time, I knew could revise and improve, but I put it on myself to always bring something complete for my boss to review.  Scheduling this meeting gave me the external deadline and the impetus to go for v1.0.  It’s a lot easier to get from v1.0 to v1.1; the hard part is getting to v1.0.

Mini Me(ntors)

Remember my group of writer friends who share a Google Spreadsheet to update one another on our writing progress?  My dirty little secret is that they are all better writers than I am.  They are better read, they have completed more projects than I have, are further along in their books than I am.  When I get stuck, I turn to them for advice.  They are not so far along in their writing careers that they have forgotten what it is like to struggle through my current predicament, and so they always have a tool in their arsenal that is perfect for me.  Maybe it is an author I should read, or a new way to think about pacing, or just words of advice on how to get through a rough patch.

Now, it just so happens that these 3 writer friends are the only writers that I know, and I feel really lucky to be able to turn to them.  Never underestimate the power of pulling together a couple likeminded folk to cheer one another on, swap ideas and commiserate over setbacks, or provide small doses of tough love at just the right time.  You will probably go farther as a group than you could as individuals.  Passion projects can be long, sometimes solitary, pursuits.  So don’t be shy about reaching out to somebody to see if they want to form some type of mastermind or accountability group!  It might take a couple iterations to figure out the proper format, but it will be worthwhile.

Knowing that I trail the others in terms of experience, I work hard to make it a relationship of mutual benefit.  Recently, I sent out a group email to make some virtual introductions (since they do not all know one another).  Writing can be intensely solitary, and I hoped to add a bit of a “community” feel to our shared online space.  One mentioned that she has an internally-imposed deadline, so I sent a follow-up email asking if there was anything that I could do to support her as she wrapped up her second draft.  I now email her every couple days to check on her progress and provide some virtual cheerleading.

Light It Up

Sometimes, a piece just needs to breathe.  When you’re nose-to-nose with a project, it can be difficult to find the perspective to move forward.  At this point, I might temporarily put something down, but always with a game plan for when and how I will return.  For example, I know that I am a minimum-seven-drafts-before-a-piece-works kind of writer, so when I planned out my project timeline from December through September, I built in time for reflection and revision.  If, while writing a first draft, I could not see the story arc, I wrote a bunch of small segments with the intention of shaping them into a beginning, middle and end, at a later date which I had already specified on my calendar.  In the interim, I read books I wanted to emulate – new authors, old favorites with an eye towards careful deconstructions of my favorite passages – and I came back with a ton of notes on techniques to try during the revision process.  I also made sure to read a handful of really bad books, which was just as instructive for what not to do.  I watched movies, read poetry and fiction and narrative journalism, looked at the arc of song lyrics.

One of my writer friends told me that when she got ¾ through her first draft she was utterly stuck, so she started reading books about screenplay writing.  She is a fiction writer, but she liked the ways these books broke down plot, pacing, tension building.  This gave her structure for rewriting her novel.  Another writer friend had taken several screenplay classes in grad school and fears his prior novels had hewed too closely to their format, and he is now looking to his own genre for inspiration on breaking out of that model.  I have heard several artists comment that regularly engaging with other people’s work does more than generate new ideas.  It also renews their love for the work.  Whether looking within a genre or to another medium, it is helpful to stay engaged with your “field.”

How about you?  How do you get yourself to finish your projects?  And be sure to check out the comments from the last post, where Kevin has a careful dissection of his thoughts on finishing a project.

Pamukkale Travestines

IMG_5365

The day I visited Pamukkale, it rained.  I had literally checked into my pansiyon, repacked my day bag, slapped on some sun screen, and had my hand on the doorknob, when thunderstorms broke out.  So I sat down with my knitting and waited until the storm passed.  It meant missing out on swimming in Pamukkale’s hot springs, but instead I was treated to a stunning sunset walk along the travertines.  And wouldn’t you know it, walking the rocky, bumpy calcium carbonate deposits provided something of a foot massage, a sort of unexpected consolation prize to missing a soak in the Sacred Pool.

IMG_5734

This was a finicky pair of socks to knit with a number of tricky bits right at the beginning, and it took me awhile to get the hang of the spirals (as evidenced by the bumpy, uneven tension along my first heel). However, between the two yarns and the pattern, I think it might be my favorite pair of handknit socks to date.

IMG_5732

Fiber # 65 // Pamukkale Travertines
Pattern: Double Heelix
Yarn: scrap Koigu, AF Wolle in unknown colorway (from Turkey)
Needle size: 1
Size: I’m a size M, but my gauge ran large, so I knit up the small and it worked out perfectly

Fake It Til You Make It

Some nights I write, but some nights I give myself a break and instead curl up on the couch with a knitting project, while Mom dozes next to me or watches television.  One night, several months ago, just as the news was coming on, Dad walked in, shaking his head.  “What?” I ask him.  A guilty smile spread across his face.  He made a feeble attempt at looking morose.

“The smallest Fu wanted a Girl Scout cookie.  He grabbed one before the rest of us could stop him!”  And then we burst out laughing together. 

Let me back up.  The Chinese language is filled with homophones, and in Chinese “Fu” can mean both “father” and “deputy” or “assistant,” and so this is my nickname for him, an ironic twist on the notion of filial piety and the stereotype of Chinese family structure as deeply patriarchial.  Within this nickname lies a long running joke whereby I possess not one deputy but nine, from an eldest to a smallest (and running down in size, like steps on a ladder, so that their height corresponds to their age).  Sometimes the Council of Nine, as I call them, are unified in their verdicts, but sometimes they harbor conflicting views.  Dad’s favorite shirt is a gray tee with bold blue letters that says, “4 out of 5 voices in my head say GO FOR IT!”  I think that for him, the Council of Nine are a metaphor for the conflicting desires that so often exist within all of us.

One thing I love about Dad is his sense of humor, the way that he can wear his small faults so lightly.  All of us are guilty of grabbing an extra cookie now and then, but not all of us would confess so disarmingly or so cheerfully.  This moment reminded me that we possess choices in how we react to situations.  He could easily have exhibited guilt, self-blame, or frustration at slipping up in his diet.  Instead, he laughed about it.

I remembered this scene a couple mornings later, as I was dressing for work.  At this point, work had been particularly difficult for me.  A combination of stress, burn out, and ambivalence has been clouding my perspective, so I decided to take a page from Dad’s book.

“I am SO excited to go to work today!” I sang out on my way down the stairs.

“I am SO happy to get to tackle really tough challenges!  I am SO pumped about trying to get people to do things they don’t want to do!”

“I am SO excited about all the fires I get to put out today!”

All said in the cheeriest, loudest voice I could muster.  Which, because I was being facetious, was quite loud and cheery indeed.  After the third sentence, I burst out laughing, unable to contain myself. 

I had just pulled a “fake it ‘til you make it” on myself, and it had worked, as it always does.  Even if you ooze insincerity in your “faking it,” as I had done, there is something about forcing that grin on your face and speaking in an upbeat manner just lifts your spirits.

I do not do this every day.  I probably should.  But it was a good reminder how much our attitude frames our approach in life, and how much control we have over how we view the world.