She sits across from the music legend, black shirt hanging loosely around her shoulders, hair draped over her chest.
It’s been 3:22 seconds since either of them have spoken.
You have a creative career. Let's find it.
She sits across from the music legend, black shirt hanging loosely around her shoulders, hair draped over her chest.
It’s been 3:22 seconds since either of them have spoken.
Kate walks on the beach in front of me, her father to her right.
I don’t know what, exactly, I am looking for. Something, anything, which shows they share a gene pool— a 6th toe maybe? A flair on the right pinky which had been passed down through generations of Thompson feet?
Flesh squished into sand as the ocean splashed up on our ankles.
With each step, I became more and more disappointed. Their footprints looked the same.
In fact, All of our footprints looked the same.
Why was this crushing me?
If you’re anything like me, someone once told you something like this:
“You never make any money writing.”
This comment, though well-meaning, often damns the dreams of Ernest Hemmingways and John Greens to be.
It’s the “any money” which always made me think. Not ANY money? Not enough to pay the rent? Not even a single dollar?
Wanting to crush the money-making myth, I took to Twitter and asked a simple question.
The responses were… well, a little overwhelming.
First, a reminder:
There is only you.
You knew that, didn’t you?
Or did you assume the creative journey WOULDN’T be a lonely one?
Are you the writer, alone with your keyboard typing the screenplay?
Are you the designer, alone with your paintbrush setting the scene?
Are you the composer, alone with your piano plucking out the melody?
Are you the director, alone with your monitor consolidating the moving parts?
Are you the actor, alone with your lines breathing them into life?
Consider this – the idea is in your head. It is not real. It is a vision in your dreams, a whisper in your ear, a stirring in your soul.
And now, you must find the resolve necessary to wrench the invisible neuron activity from the ethereal to the physical.
How could you NOT be alone?
You have questions.
Questions like: Why do I feel inadequate? Why was this stupid idea was dropped in my lap? How will I ever finish this? Why does nobody understand?
The answers are: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. and – I don’t know.
Because the truth is, there are no answers to the questions you ask.
There is only you.
And you must find your own way.
The good news – you can.
But it helps if you aren't alone.
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The title itself almost made me throw up.
Being a good researcher, though, I clicked through anyway, hoping to be wrong. I was disappointed.
Yep — there is the suggestion my life was crap.
Yep — there is the advice about getting up earlier.
Yep — there are the mild adjectives and simple sentences.
Yep — there is the implication the author is wildly successful.
Yep — there is the ask for an email address
Yep — there is the vomit.
The relentless swill of recycled “wisdom” in the self-help genre, while worthy of ire itself, is not the topic of this post. After all, self-help in itself is fine. Asking for email addresses is fine. Giving advice is fine.
Writing with all the poise and grace of a third-grader, though, is not fine.
No matter your topic, be it the urgency of the pension crisis, the excretion of the 7-toed tree frog, or yes, even getting up early in the morning in order to live YOUR BEST LIFE(!), there are ways to write which do not compel puny, Y List Celebrities like me to throw their breakfast cereal at the wall.
So here we go:
A metaphor is when you describe a thing which cannot do or be the thing you are actually claiming it is doing or being. (Calm down, English majors. That’s essentially what it is).
“The sun rose”
“The sun was golden lava pouring over the ground.”
Of course the sun wasn’t REALLY golden lava, unless your fiction story is off to a horrific start. But it seemed like that, though, didn’t it? It looked like that. As a matter of fact, your brain thought it actually was. Researchers from Emory University discovered metaphor spreads beyond the language processing center and into the other sensory areas of the brain.
You’ve been looking for Jedi mind tricks your whole life. Turns out all you had to do was use metaphor.
Instead of bashing bad writers, let’s cheer on a good one. Dan Moore’s My Mom is a Movie Star puts on a clinic:
My mom is the epitome of cool. Her eyes could cut ice. She bounces on her toes, all muscle and kinetic potential. In her hand she holds a baton that has been lit on fire at both ends. She holds it as casually as others might grip a tennis racket. The New England night yawns out behind her.
Can a night yawn? No. Can a eyeball cut ice? No. It doesn’t matter. We feel what Dan is saying.
Make sure you go read that whole post.
Then have a good cry.
Then let’s get into…
Pacing is when you slowly lead the reader up a long and winding tunnel. You slip and strain to pull them over boulders, hop across gaps, and squeeze through the tiniest crevices. You show them the marks you followed to reach your destination before finally emerging on the very top of a snowy mountain.
Then, you push them off the cliff to their death.
“Think about when you are in a car. When you go 80 miles an hour for more than 60 seconds, you don’t even feel it anymore. But when you accelerate from 10 to 100, or 100 to 10, you feel it.”
— Some smart author who I forgot and can’t find now.
Pacing is the bedrock of good writing. Take a look at your sentences and paragraphs. Are they the same length? Do you lull your reader to sleep with long, flowing sentences which seem to never end?
Then start again later.
By the way, you’ll notice my pacing often includes a line break because I’m super dramatic like that. Good pacing works in paragraphs too. Take a look at this example from a book I’m reading right now — Ty Burr’s Gods Like Us:
“Cary Grant, the studio system’s Perfect Man, privately raged against the Academy for not giving him an Oscar and experimented extensively with LSD. Read between the lines of the existing biographies and the mythic love affair of Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy turns into a problematic tale of alcoholism, enablement, and emotional cruelty. I’m pretty sure Tom Hanks picks his nose.”
Long sentence. Long sentence. Short sentence. Easy, right? For bonus points, Ty Burr uses emotional pacing as well.
Long serious sentence. Long serious sentence. Short funny sentence.
Or take this out of context piece from Sunil Rajaraman’s Everybody’s Rich But You. What could have been a bland, self-helpy niche article about contentment as an entrepreneur turns into a fascinating read for all.
You know what? Who needs an exit? You don’t need more money. Money is only going to add stress to your life. It’s not like these people are going to be any happier. What would you do with more money? You are so lean already. You get out of the car. You spend $10 on a cup of cat-shit coffee. Your Lyft cost $17.
For comparison, here is one terrible and boring way to make the same point as above.
If you are looking to make more money, perhaps you should start with more expensive daily purchases*. The New York Times did a study that said much coffee costs an average of $6 over a few days!** Cut out coffee to save money and feel more rich***.
*Telling people what they “SHOULD” do scares them
**Please stop putting studies in your posts because Mr. Benjamin P. Hardy does it
***If this were any more on the nose, we wouldn’t even be able to see the rest of your face****.
****I know that doesn’t make much sense but I think you get it now.
Writing like yourself is when you tell your own stories, share your own insights, and connect your own pieces of your own puzzle with your own experiences and your own advice. Read your own books and watch your own movies and do your own work and tell us what you learned.
(Was that subtle enough?)
“Battle mode. Old habits. I kept my job at the Commission and wrote at night. My husband stayed in his job, too, though he wanted something different. We kept writing down tasks and ticking them off. Every now and again, we would take a breath and look at each other and try to remember if life had always been like this. Hadn’t we been fun, once? Hadn’t we laughed more?
We had forgotten how to do anything but work, as if work were the solution to every problem.”
Do you see what just happened? You read someone else’s story and learned something about your own life. Wow! Turns out you are pretty smart! I guess you don’t need to be hand-held through self improvement after all.
Surely there are a million and one ways to go about writing better, but these three are my favorites — metaphor, pacing, and writing like yourself.
Are you using metaphor, pacing, or personality in your writing? Leave a comment below and tell me how.
Before we get too deep into this, a quick story.
A seasoned music teacher once had trouble getting the best out of his students. On a particularly frustrating day, the teacher waved down his class, thrashing his baton about impatiently.
After a long pause, the instructor scanned the room, looking each member of the group right in the eyes.
Then he said this:
“I feel sorry for you all. Your lives have been easy. But you cannot make great art if ease is all you have known.”
Consider, for a moment, the phenomenon in storytelling known as the Black Moment.
The Black Moment is the point in the story where our main character is at her lowest. She has been beat down by Ultron, or her boyfriend has broken her heart and stranded her in Spain, or she’s just been fired from her job after discovering her sweet grandmother Judith has been robbing her trust fund for the last 25 years.
It’s as if our hero says “Well, nothing worse than ______ could happen,” so they are inspired to take the actions required to fulfill a destiny.
Black Moments happen in real life as well.
Frida Kahlo went through at least 4 Black Moments, the most grievous of which was the bus accident which left her lying in the street with a pole impaled through her lower half.
“Tragic” is a good way to describe the 47 years Kahlo spent on this planet. “Devastating” is more accurate.
But as with every meaningful life, beauty can be found in ashes. Hope, in suffering. Light, in darkness.
Frida was nothing if not a light.
If Frida did have an “advantage” in her career, it was the cumulative tragedies she went through.
First — polio at age nine.
Then — a bus wreck which left her impaled by a pole, covered in gold glitter, and lying on the street naked.
Next — a tumultuous marriage, which would include multiple affairs (one with her sister).
After that — two forced abortions and a miscarriages.
And — spinal injuries which required increasingly restrictive therapy (like a device that hung her from the ceiling)
Finally — the amputation of her right leg.
All of this before her relatively early death at 47.
Although she didn’t start painting “seriously” until later in life, Frida was able to create so much poignant work by virtue of the sheer quantity of disappointments life had offered her until that point.
Modern humans are strange. We pray for easy lives. We ask to be free of pain and tragedy. When something bad happens, we think “Why me?”
Answer: “Why anyone?”
Pain IS life, as inseparable as a drop of water is from the ocean.
We should not be so sadistic as to ask for tragedy in life. Instead, we should be asking to better express those tragedies through our work.
There’s a proverb which gets tossed around so often in today’s world, it is almost cliche:
“If you do what everyone else does, you will get what everyone else gets”
The sentiment here is pure, I think — words borne of a desire to differentiate. After all, the baggage included in the word “creativity” includes an expectation of the completely different and new.
(This is, of course, a complete fallacy, but more on that later).
At least part of this quote can be applied to Kahlo. In a world where everyone was moving right, Frida took only left turns.
In her childhood classroom, she was the one singing and dancing. In the subdued fashions of America, she sported wild and bold color. Frida had love affairs with men and women in a time where the latter could earn you scorn from the community.
And when everyone else who could hold a brush was in the business of monstrous, grand murals, Frida’s work progressively got smaller. It’s important to point out she held her personal voice and style although she was married to Diego Rivera, one of the great muralists of the day.
Consider the extraordinary strength of identity this requires. I am so malleable of mind at times that when I see a taco, I want a taco. When I read a great work of fiction, I want to write novels. Yet Frida would watch Diego paint enormous blocks of wall for hours and days at a time, and then go home and distill her own convictions into canvases the size of coffee table books.
In one of Frida’s more well known paintings, The Two Fridas, the artist depicts two versions of herself sitting across from each other.
Look at that. Completely original. New. Unique.
Take a look at this picture by Theodore Chasseriau, The Two Sisters:
Kahlo saw this picture at the Louvre the very same year she created The Two Fridas.
This is another reminder — originality has a cap.
Many beginner artists think the best way to go about creating original work is refusing to accept influence from anyone, shutting out the world to attempt at something completely unique and true.
Instead, the opposite is true. The great artist must observe and consume as much as possible, allowing herself to be malleable to the styles, the choices, the compositions, the ideas, and the philosophies of old masters now gone.
Practically, the concept is simple — take an idea which has been proven to work. Then make it your own.
Though her marriage to Diego was… well, a disaster, it did not come without its benefits.
Diego was well connected and well respected in the artist’s community. This meant that once he and Frida left Mexico, her social network would have been flooded creative professionals. His work took him all over the work, including what could have been called the capital of art at the time — Paris.
At its core, creativity is nothing more than combining existing elements to produce new and interesting solutions.
Most of the time, too much emphasis is placed on the output of art, and not enough on the input. Even though she had not started painting consistently, Frida would have seen as much art as anyone else on the planet. Today, we are so exposed it is taken for granted. Want to see the Mona Lisa? Done. Curious about Monet’s Water Lillies? No need to plan a big trip.
Today, humanity’s entire art history is within 2 seconds of your searching. Frida had this education 60 years before everyone else.
This is not a small thing.
But there is a clear difference between information and instruction. Frida also would have been granted access to the mind of the modern artist. She knew how they thought. She knew how they dreamed. She knew how the went from Point A (blank canvas) to Point B (finished masterpiece).
By the time her Muse began shouting at her, she was equipped with the technical skills as well as the mindset to make a big difference.
After months of articles, wikis, videos, and random research, the last piece of information I consciously absorbed before sitting to write this piece were these three words:
Viva la Vida.
It was the name of Kahlo’s last painting, the phrase she wrote 8 days before her death. Aged just 47, closing out a journey of pain and struggle, of affairs and suffering, of broken heart and body, Kahlo still chose these words to remain at the end of her legacy:
Viva la Vida.
Long live life.
Before I dive into the creative lessons I learned from Amy Winehouse, a quick disclaimer.
Every other artist I’ve turned upside down in this series peaked well before Amy had even been born. However, the reason I chose her is not so different from my other selections, who were picked based on a couple criteria:
Admittedly if there is a missing piece from Amy’s repertoire at this point as it relates to masters of creativity, it’s the unmentioned criteria #3:
3. Stands the test of time.
I’m jumping to a conclusion there, of course. But seeing as the next generation of musicians (Bruno Mars, Adele, Alessa Cara, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Sam Smith, John Legend and others) have already credited Amy for influencing their careers, I believe it safe to say her work will not be forgotten any time soon.
Let’s dig in:
As with many stories of lasting creatives, this is one of tragedy.
Although you don’t have to create a disaster of a personal life in order to have a successful career, Amy navigated many tough circumstances right from the start. Early on, we see a pattern begin to emerge: Amy’s personal life takes a hit, her musical life gets a boost. It is nearly impossible to tell which inspired or caused the other. It seems for Amy that pain and success went hand in hand, twisted snakes spiraling ever downward:
1992: Amy begins to blossom on stage as a teenager — while her parents separate in a blaze of arguments and fighting
2003: Amy releases her first record, Frank, which becomes a huge success — then she has a falling out with her management company and meets Blake Fielder-Civil, the boyfriend with whom she began doing illegal substances.
2006: Amy blows up the music scene with her album Back to Black — simultaneously sinking deeper and deeper into addiction
2008: Amy wins 5 Grammy awards including Song of the Year and Record of the Year for Rehab — but she is unable to attend the event due to health concerns
2011: Amy steps out of her reclusive nature to record with Tony Bennett — and then passes away later that same year
Even after the tragic early death, we see the flip side of that coin as well. Her family created a foundation for young artists likely to fall into similar trappings as the late vocalist. Her brother, Alex, quit his career as a music journalist to do so.
The foundation has worked with nearly a quarter of a million students in the seven years since her death.
Substance abuse claimed one Winehouse. This gave the others incentive to claim a potential 250,000+ from the same fate.
As far as I can tell, it works like this: Fame does nothing more than offer you access to more options. More good. More bad.
It’s just a shame Amy missed a lot of the good.
In a documentary released the year after her death, a recording plays of Amy in her young career and an unnamed interviewer:
Interviewer: “So how often do you think about how famous do you will be?”
Amy: “I don’t… I don’t think I’ll be famous at all.”
And then she says:
“I don’t think I could handle it.”
This reminds me of a similar audio exchange I heard with Swedish DJ Avicii, who died earlier this year at 28:
Avicii: “People’s perception of who Avicii is isn’t who Tim* is.
Avicii: “I never really liked being the center of attention”
Interviewer: “You are [the center of attention] though.”
Avicii: “I know, and that’s what makes it weird.”
*Tim is Avicii’s given name*
2 years before his death, Avicii’s health began to decline and he was hospitalized for acute pancreatitis (like caused by excessive alcohol use).
Now, read this next line because it is important:
In Avicii’s documentary, he is seen on a hospital bed working at his laptop on a song.
You read that and think
“Ah, see. He was a workaholic. Look at him, trying to make music instead of recovering.”
I read that and think:
“Ah finally, he’s gotten some space to do what he loves.”
What does that have to do with Amy Winehouse? Everything.
Even as her career began to explode, she swore she never expected anything. She speaks over and over again of “loving to sing,” and “wanting to sing,” but also talks about “never desiring to be a singer.”
It’s unclear from the research, but it’s likely both Amy and Avicii were introverts. All people are affected by environment. Introverts are simply more affected. An introvert will typically flourish more under strong parenting than an extrovert. The opposite is also true. Introverts will be damaged more when surrounded by bickering parents, addicts, greedy label executives, etc.
Were the path available for Amy to become solely a songwriter and backup singer, she may still be alive.
Of course, nobody would know her name.
Every time you see Amy, she probably looked close to this: Black eye shadow and big eye liner. Big heels. Slimming dress. Beehive hairdo.
Suggested by Amy herself and realized by stylist Alex Foden, Amy’s look was unforgettable. It became more unforgettable later in her career when the hair got bigger, the heels got caller, and the eyeliner got thicker.
“She was a 5-foot-3 almanac of visual reference”
Quick, take a guess at what Mark Zuckerberg is wearing right now. How about Bill Gates? If Steve Jobs were here, you know what he’d have on.
People are recognizable for a reason. The simpler and more repeatable your brand, the easier it is to remember you.
If there’s one thing America loves, it’s watching from afar as a skinny, good-looking, happy, talented girl spins out of control and into a skinny, high-haired, foul-mouthed wreck.
It’s worth pointing out that the boom in reality television during the time of Amy’s rise gave us explicit permission to watch people fall apart. Popular shows like Survivor and Big Brother created an implicit rule for all media: those who create the most drama get the most camera time. At our most basic level, it’s hard for us to resist the magnetic pull of a disaster unfolding in slow motion.
I’ve said this before, but one of the magnificent things about human beings is our ability to create work which will be here after we are not. Winehouse’s legacy and music may never go away.
This is equally true because of, and in spite of, her early departure.
The point here is not to lionize substance abuse.
At the end of the day, Amy Winehouse was sitting in a pub with her boyfriend, saw him and another friend with bags of cocaine, and made the choice to say:
“Hey, let me have some of that.”
She decided to consume the drugs. She refused to go to rehab. She switched to alcohol once drugs were removed from the situation.
Only a few years ago, that would be all the explanation I required:
A stupid girl made stupid choices.
Now I know that isn’t the whole story. It rarely is with people like her.
Many times when I am doing research, I will ask myself this question:
“What do I believe to be true and how could I disprove that?”
The allure of tortured genius hangs over our culture like a think, ugly veil. It seems baked into art itself. If you don’t have demons, you can’t make great stuff.
However, I believe this is an exception rather than a rule. Although Picasso certainly dealt out his fair share of damage to those who surrounded him, T.S. Eliot did so less. Albert Einstein managed to go through his whole career without even a brush with a mental hospital (although admittedly his work was so far beyond the realm of what most people were thinking about, it’s possible people accepted his madness).
More to the point, there are millions of creative people who will never make a single negative headline.
Depression is on the rise. Suicide is on the rise. Our picture of mental health in the human race is not exactly admirable at this moment in time.
When Avicii died, I cried. When I began research on Amy, I listened to Back to Black on a loop and sobbed. Demi Lovato overdosed a few weeks ago and while I didn’t cry, I wasn’t smiling.
Every time a creative genius gets into trouble, I take it personally. Amy is my sister. Avicii is my brother. Demi is my cousin.
Creative people surround you every day. They sit next to you on the train. They walk past you getting coffee. They are your friends, your family. They are full of potential genius. They are doing good work, even if you have no idea who they are.
Protect your creative friends. Protect yourself.
After all, we are the future.
Much love as always ❤
— Todd B