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One of the side products of getting older, apart from the emergence of World Series MVPs and internet millionaires who were born while you were in high school, is the fact that people start asking you for professional advice. This has been an odd notion for me to wrap my head around, as I still see myself as a somewhat stunted buffoon who now just happens to have a couple gray hairs and a few nicer shirts -- so far, it seems to be a convincing adult costume.
That being said, I’ve spent enough hours in multi-monitored rooms working with both talented individuals and, um, other people, on projects ranging from 5 second off-air promos to studio-produced feature films to have developed some opinions about what I find important to my creative process. And if there’s anything the Internet is good for, it’s haphazardly blasting out opinions – preferably in a bullet-pointed list! So to that end, here’s a fun-time grab-bag jamboree of technical insight and creative advice – it’s coming from an editorial-centric perspective, but apply as needed and call a doctor in case of unexplained rashes. I’m sure he’ll recommend an enormous grain of salt.
And for an added level of intrigue, some of the advice is NOT advice, but instead, selections from an erotic techno-thriller novella I’m working on called Science Friction. I leave it up to you to figure out which is which. To the big board!
Make it so anyone can walk in, look at what you’ve done, and immediately know what’s going on.
1. WORK CLEAN
Oh, hi there – it says here that you’re an “artist” whose process of discovery requires chaos and a complete lack of structure or constraints? Buuuulllllshit. Work clean. Work really clean. Creative pursuits are innately loose, free-flowing explorations dependent on intellectual flexibility and improvisation, but there still must be a solid, locked-down foundation that anchors even the most insane experiments. I’ve worked on many jobs that were started by other editors, and nothing lets you know whether or not someone is a real, dyed in the wool pro faster than seeing how they manage a project. Make it so anyone can walk in, look at what you’ve done, and immediately know what’s going on. Being truly organized might not sound like the sexiest aspect of a creative process, but to my mind, precision and simplicity in the midst of manic situations is beautiful. That sentiment is good enough for the judges on Chopped, and therefore it’s good enough for me -- Alex Guarnaschelli seems like a warrior queen who would brunoise me if I thought otherwise.
Give yourself something, anything, to react to and then let that be the jumping off point that gets you moving forward.
2. GET SOMETHING DOWN
An empty canvas, a blank timeline, my girlfriend’s potential outfit for the day – each a breeding ground for infinite hypothetical combinations and ways to tackle the task at hand. The paralysis of options is a real thing. Starts are hard -- you’re creating within a vacuum. So give yourself something, anything, to react to and then let that be the jumping off point that gets you moving forward. Having something tangible to watch, to read back, to compare 4 different pairs of shoes against, even it was almost mindlessly barfed out there, gets you past the harder task of pure creation. It’s now about commentary and refinement -- you’re making something better as opposed to figuring out what to do. And personally, I thought the black ankle boots with the boy jeans looked great, but then again, they all look amazing on you, honey.
3. CHECK THE BOOT DISK
That’s what the sign on the wall said. Krystal ran her fingers across the letters -- it was oddly cool to the touch -- and the hairs on the back of her neck went taut as she remembered her early days at Swampbot Tecnotics LTD, long ago, and the first time she saw Breck Mixon, the most respected coder, wine expert, and swordsman in the New Tallahassee cyber-surveillance office. “Check the boot disk, indeed,” she muttered to herself. Even then, back before Penbroth went rogue and the world went mad, Breck knew how things worked.
Being able to identify the moments in other people’s work that really stick with you gives you a backlog of inspiration to draw from when it comes to your own projects.
4. KNOW WHAT YOU LIKE (AND WHY YOU LIKE IT)
Being able to recognize what it is about something that makes you like it, as opposed to just liking it, makes it easier to bring style and nuggets of “hell yeah!” to your own work. When I truly love a movie or a song, the root of that love is often an incredibly brief moment: the split-second harmony between Mick and Keith when they sing, “rank outsider” in “Tumblin’ Dice,” the immediate, insane cut to the van crashing into a tree in Wet Hot American Summer, the way Trey Parker can make any word into a joke on its own. Being able to identify the moments in other people’s work that really stick with you gives you a backlog of inspiration to draw from when it comes to your own projects. It’s like like a pinboard for your interests – which gives me an idea for a website. I think I’ll call in Interboard. I’ll be waiting for your call, Venture Capitalism.
5. ACTIVELY ENJOY WHAT YOU’RE DOING
“Sitting down and writing is the worst.” Not true. Sitting down and writing, or editing, or whatever, is definitely challenging, sometimes maddeningly so, but there is a yard and a universe of difference between something being hard to do and it being awful. No matter what project I’m working on, I try to find a morsel of fun in it – it helps to keep me sane and is a good way of tricking myself into making a mundane exercise into a more enjoyable process. If you’re lucky enough, you’ve found yourself in a position where people are willing to pay you actual, legal money for your creative input and technical skills. And money, even if it starts to feel like hilariously abstract life-tokens when you think about it for too long, is one of the best things to use when it comes to buying food or magazines. Or both at the same time!
You’re a programmer? Study photography. Graphic designer? Start a terrible band with some friends.
6. DROP EVERYTHING
Penbroth was now less than half a lacrosse field away from them. “I said, drop EVERYTHING!” he shouted again, as Breck frantically typed away at the virtua-pad, fingers flying while Krystal plunged the two-headed key fob into the glowing, purple orb. “Faster Breck!” she screamed as Penbroth drew closer, lead pipe in hand, cyber-mutt by his side, “The orb can’t stay open much longer!” Mixon slowly looked up at Krystal and smiled. “Listen kid…this isn’t my first time at the dance.” He held out a finger and let it hover above the pad. Krystal inhaled and time stopped. “I would never have made it this far without you,” Breck said. “I want US to push it. Together. Now.”
7. BE A POLYMATH
Anything you do outside of your standard creative routine will only serve to make your normal work that much more vibrant and well-informed. It’s also the best way to avoid burnout. You’re a programmer? Study photography. Graphic designer? Start a terrible band with some friends. Spend too much time in an edit bay? Convince someone to let you write a column on their website…then slowly spread hidden codes containing ancient secrets within the 4th and 112th word of each of your columns. Exposure to other creative fields, especially when I’m not good at them, helps to keep my brain constantly engaged. Juggling between pursuits that you enjoy makes returning to your “normal” focus feel that much fresher. Unless your normal focus is juggling. Then you’re screwed.
8. MESS AROUND
It’s never been easier to stumble upon happy accidents. The digital tools available today have made it easier than ever to truly play around on your own and experiment in a no mistakes, no consequences manner. Often times, something I’ll stumble upon or learn while mindlessly messing around will find its way into a “real” project somewhere down the road. Allowing yourself to play in an unstructured setting leads to the stream of consciousness discoveries that are much harder to find when you’re “doing work.”
9. NEVER FORGET
“Never forget that, Krystal. Dr. Drave Penbroth, regardless of what he became, started out exactly like us – a lean, sexually permissive, computer genius from The Everglades.” Krystal nodded as Breck caressed her lower back with his new, ExoSkin hand. It felt real enough that she’d almost forgotten the events at the lab. “I know, Breck…I know. And that’s what scares me.” Breck swung himself up into the saddle and kicked the throttle on the HoverSki. Krystal climbed on behind him. “Baby, being scared is being alive. We had a tech ops briefing to be at 5 minutes ago. Now just gimme a kiss and let’s float.” She kissed the back of his neck as they blasted off through the marsh, wake behind them, everything else ahead.