Hemingway and the Simply Complicated Way to Creativity

Ernest Hemingway may be the 20th century literary creative icon that stands above all others. He wrote such masterpieces as The Old Man and the Sea and A Farewell to Arms. When it comes to creativity you could do worse than to look to him. In 1934 a young man named Arnold Samuelson hitched a ride on a coal car from Minnesota all the way to Key West. His goal was to spend at least an hour with Hemingway trying to learn something about the craft of writing. He ended up spending a year with the master.

Amongst the many other things Samuelson learned, this was one that stood out. Hemingway said:

The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.

I’ve heard it said (though haven’t tracked down a reliable source) that Hemingway would use a simple technique to keep his writing moving. He would apparently write half a sentence at the end of the day. He knew how it would end. So he’d be able to pick right up the next day where he left off. It sounds easy. But it’s really not.

The hard work of writing came as Hemingway would write and rewrite. It came as he would the morning hours writing what he had researched and dreamed up in his mind. Hemingway claimed that he rewrote A Farewell to Arms over fifty times. Nothing complicated about it. Write. And then rewrite. Not complicated, but very difficult and very hard work.

Two lessons from Hemingway:

  1. Quit when you know where you’re going next. Use your own trick to “stop in the middle of the sentence” and pick up where you left off.
  2. You won’t have a masterpiece on your first try. Don’t be afraid to tweak, rewrite, re-work, and do whatever you can to refine your work. It will be all that much better.

What tricks do you use to inspire your creativity?

This is part of an occasional series of lessons in creativity from creative masters.

Edward Hopper and the Repetitive Way to Creativity

Edward Hopper has always been one of my favorite artists. His attention to detail, straight lines, and use of color draw in my eye. But I think what really connects me to his paintings is his exploration of loneliness and isolation. Instead of making us feel sorry for the lonely subjects, we want to know their story. We feel an affinity to them. Their loneliness becomes ours. It doesn’t feel sad or depressing. It’s more of a thoughtful and pensive kind of isolation. That can sometimes be a good thing.

I imagine that Edward Hopper had more than his share of loneliness. But his loneliness was the productive kind. It’s how he fulfilled his unique creative process. The painting you see above is one of Hopper’s most well known. It’s called New York Movie. Before he painted it, Hopper drew 54 studies of movie theaters and his wife as the model. He would spend days and days visiting different theaters and doing drawings. Then he would come home and sketch his wife.

In fact, Hopper drew more than he painted. He painstakingly sketched people and places before he painted. He said that painting was a difficult process for him and he only painted two or three paintings a year. It took him six weeks to three months simply to produce one.

Funny thing is that modern day curators now see the drawings themselves as significant art. Hopper refused to produce a book of his drawings because he didn’t think they were good enough. Apparently others vehemently disagree.

Here are the lessons for anyone creating anything:

  1. We don’t always get to decide whether our art is good or not. Others sometimes see things that we can’t. To paraphrase a famous saying: Art is in the eye of the beholder.
  2. Background work is valuable to the finished product. Hopper’s paintings would never have been as good without the all the preparatory sketches. A first draft of your work will never be as good as a fifth, tenth, or twentieth iteration.
  3. Even difficult (for us) art is worth producing. Hopper had to work hard at his painting. But it made him money and it made him famous. Art doesn’t necessarily come easily. But sometimes effort is very much worth the result.
  4. Time alone makes for great productivity. With a goal in mind, isolation is time for hunkering down and doing the work that needs to get done. It’s what Hopper did with his sketching. And he produced some incredible work focusing on isolation itself.

So do the (sometimes) lonely work that leads to great art. We will thank you for it.

What lessons do you learn from Hopper?

This is part of an occasional series of lessons in creativity from creative masters.

The Secret Power of Anticipation

Anticipation is a powerful thing. For almost as long as I can remember I have wanted to travel to Europe. Specifically, I have wanted to go to England and Italy. It’s been my dream. I’ve been able to travel to the Holy Land, but never Europe. My wife, Tammy, has never been overseas at all. But in just a short while we will be visiting both London and Tuscany. The anticipation has been a powerful motivational factor.

For more than a year now we have been planning, dreaming, and saving for this trip. We are using gifts we have received and the help of dear friends to make this dream a reality. The trip is going to revolve around the 60th birthday of a great friend. We’ll be able to share our experience with people we love, and will miss others who won’t be able to make it.

I don’t know about you, but for me, anticipating something is more than half of the fun. It’s such a blast to picture the places we will soon be. And then it will be fun to compare the way we pictured it with how it really is. The anticipation is so great that I almost don’t want our trip to start. But it must. And it will.

And it will make memories that will last the rest of our lives.

Here’s what anticipation’s secret power did for us:

  1. It helped us save. Goals are great things. When you anticipate something big it brings the willpower to cut back on certain things, put money in the bank, and delay the gratification.
  2. It helped us plan. Anticipation is a great motivator when it comes to education. It’s been so much fun to learn, to read, and to study the places we will be visiting.
  3. It drew us together with friends. We have come to know new friends amongst the group who will be traveling together. It will give a group of people shared memories and topics of conversation for a long time.

If you don’t have something to anticipate right now, try to find something. It’s a powerful way to keep life interesting. It motivates growth. Looking forward to something keeps you moving toward goals.  It will help you save money or move ahead in life. Anticipation even draws you closer to people.

What is it that you are anticipating today?

When Memorial Day Becomes Real

Memorial Day has, over the years, become increasingly important to me. The older I get the more I realize the cost of freedom. When freedom is taken away by terror it becomes even more precious. The price of our freedom has been spilled on acres upon acres of foreign soil.

My heritage doesn’t include anyone who paid the ultimate price for America. I am thankful for that. But it doesn’t mean that I appreciate any less those who have given me my freedom.

But this Memorial Day will be different for me. I now know someone who has sacrificed his life for me and my country. He was the friend of our two children. When he was in high school he came to our home numerous times. He was happy, friendly, gregarious, energetic, and passionate. The passion that he had for life translated to his love for country.

So he became a Green Beret and a medic. He always wanted to help and serve. That’s what he did for a living as he served the people of the United States on a mission in Afghanistan. On August 23rd, 2016, this young man was killed in action. A roadside bomb took his life.

Because of him and those like him we have the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the freedom to bear arms, and the ability to freely elect our leaders. These are gifts that should never ever be taken for granted. They are paid for with the price of blood.

I hope and pray that my children and grandchildren will never have to pay this price. But I am hopeful that they will always know, enjoy, and appreciate the freedom that has been won for us. Freedom is far too expensive to ever take for granted.

Have a blessed Memorial Day.

And please, please remember as you celebrate this holiday in your own way, that America as you know it was bought on the backs of selfless citizens.

Ants Never Say “I Can’t”…Do You?

The ants are back. This time with a vengeance. A couple of months ago we had some ants on the counters in our kitchen. In a climate filled with all kinds of creepy crawlies, it could be much worse. The last time they appeared our exterminator came over, and in a matter of a day or two they were gone. But now they have come back. And it’s more than I’ve ever seen inside of a house. It’s really not good.

But our trusty exterminator has been called. I have every confidence that he’ll once again take care of it all. But in the mean time it’s been disruptive. We’ve had to spend time killing ants. Our cooking has been done to maneuver around those little buggers. We can’t wait until they are once again gone. They’re not really icky or gross. They’re just annoying.

These pests may be annoying to us, but they’re only trying to get their job done. They all seem to be carrying something. They’ve got some kind of project going. As they do so:

  1. they are persistent, and
  2. they are disruptive.

Sounds like a pretty good lesson in productivity and growth, doesn’t it? If you’re trying to make a ruckus in ministry or in the marketplace, you could do worse than to:

  1. be persistent, and
  2. be disruptive.

Those ants don’t quit. They just keep coming back. They will not be deterred. They keep going. Even when their mates go down the work continues. Nothing will hold them back (except maybe The Exterminator).

They’re also disruptive. They have our attention. We can’t seem to get around them. They are most definitely noticed.

Here’s your assignment for today:

  1. Be persistent, and
  2. Be disruptive.

In other words, keep going. Whatever it is you’re working on, it’s worth it. Someone’s going to benefit. If another person doesn’t, you most certainly will just by virtue of the work you’re putting in.

And be disruptive. Do something to draw attention to your important work. There are all kinds of tools these days to do just that. Just one example: Facebook Live. It jolts people into paying attention. They are naturally attracted to video. They can’t look away. I’m sure you can come up with other ideas.

An ant never says, “I can’t.” Why should you?

What do persistence and disruption look like to you?

Are You Patient Enough to Let It Pay Off?

Last week my wife and I attended a Social Media conference. It was for businesses and non-profits that use social media to advertise, expand business, and spread the word(s). There were people who were wildly successful and people who were just starting out. I was there to learn how I could help our church’s ministry with online resources. My wife was there to learn ways to help her newfound business grow. What I noticed is that one has to be patient to watch risks pay off. A good number of business and projects aren’t built overnight.

To be completely honest, we’re in the “patience” phase of Tammy’s business right now. She quit her teaching job at the end of December with an eye toward starting her own thing. She was paid through the end of February. We have money saved up. But now we’re having to dip into that savings a bit.

We’re to the point where we’d really like to see the business begin to take off a bit more than it already has. Tammy asked me whether I thought it was a good idea to quit her job and take this risk. I responded that it absolutely was. She has more freedom. She’s been able to spend time with our grandson. We’ve been able to do things together that we never would have had she still been working.

We’re finding ourselves in the phase of Tammy’s business that Seth Godin calls “The Dip.” The dip is what happens when someone starts a business, a task, or a project and then doesn’t immediately experience the result that they had hoped for. The majority of people at this point quit. They can’t see their way through the dip. But those that push through often see success on the other side of the dip.

To make it through the dip requires one to be patient. It’s not easy when the money isn’t coming in or people aren’t responding to your project as you’d like. But if you keep creating, learning from mistakes, and refining on the fly, your patience will often pay off.

Patience doesn’t pay the bills, but it most certainly often pays off. Push through the dip with patience and you might just see results greater than you could have ever imagined. We’re certainly beginning to see signs that this could be true for my wife’s business. If we’re patient we might just see what’s on the other side of the dip.

What are you patiently waiting for? Can you find your way past the dip?

Advice for Your 21-Year-Old Self

One of the highlights of my life has been the opportunity to mentor people. A few years ago I created a mentoring group for four young men. They were all in their mid-twenties. We met together monthly for discussion, support, and prayer. Part of the time was reserved for advice-giving. I would share thoughts with the guys. They would share thoughts and ideas with one another. And though they learned a great deal, I’m certain that I learned even more in that year.

It’s been very satisfying for me to see where those young men’s lives have taken them since that mentoring year. One moved to a new city to take on a new job and became a father. One advanced in his career and is extremely happy with where his life has gone. One went back to school for a very specialized trade. And one purchased a van, traveled the country with his brother, and is now doing so on his own. You can follow his journey here.

Advice is a difficult thing. You never know when you should heed it…or from whom. It’s also sometimes dangerous to give. You never know how it might be misconstrued or misused.

But what if you could give yourself some advice? That’s what I asked my Facebook friends today: What advice would you give your 21-year-old self? The responses were fascinating. Here’s a sample:

  • Don’t be afraid to take chances. Be more confident. Buy stock in Apple.
  • Before you make a big decision, pray about it, ask 3 other trusted people, and wait a minimum of 30 days.
  • Go after your wildest dreams, and don’t get scared that you can’t handle them when they start to come true.
  • Don’t worry about what other’s think…be your own person!
  • Be sure to plan for your retirement. You never know what can happen.
  • Don’t waste time or mental energy worrying what people think of you. Everyone just pretends to know what they’re doing anyway.
  • Set better goals!
  • Get your butt back in church sooner!
  • Pick your battles wisely and fail fast.

And then there was this: 

Don’t let fear get in the way of pursuing your dreams. You know “you” better than anyone else. You know what you’re interested in and what you like to do. Talk to people who are doing it and ask for help. Get a mentor who will guide you along the way. Your parents may not understand what you want to do and may not know how to help you do it. Find trusted advice and make a path to your dream job.

An undercurrent of all of these responses could be summed up in one word: regret. One of the goals I had for the four young men in my mentoring group is that they wouldn’t live with regret. I sense that many of the people who responded to my Facebook question have regrets in life. They have learned from them. But some wish they had never done one thing or another. They wish they wouldn’t have done things just to please other people.

One person even messaged me personally to express regret. Advice to our 21-year-old selves reveals a great deal about our inner thoughts and where we wish we would have gone or what we might have otherwise done.

But here’s how to transform advice to your 21-year-old self: Take the same advice and apply it to your life today.

It’s never too late to reverse your regret. Live the life you’ve imagined. Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Say “I’m sorry.” Take the class. Go on the trip. Buy the stock. Don’t worry about what others think. Buy the van and head out west.

It’s not too late.

What advice would you give to yourself today?

What It Means When Your Church’s Worship Isn’t Cool

I have a pastor friend who serves a campus ministry. He has an intriguing way of piquing interest in his worship services. Every week he places a sign outside the door of the church for passers-by to see. It always has an interesting statement or question relating to the week’s worship. This week the sign said: “What is the best thing about church?”

It was interesting that this happened to be the question today. This very day I heard through the grapevine that a family no longer attends our church because the adolescents in the family think it’s boring.  So they attend the local mega church that has lights, sets, a professional band, and an attractive young pastor with an untucked shirt.

Here are my honest responses to that revelation:

  • It cuts like a knife. I probably take it more personally than I should that someone has left our church. But I (and our support staff, volunteers, and musicians) put a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears, into developing lively worship and engaging sermons. Like it or not, it’s personal.
  • You can’t be all things to all people. If entertainment is what you’re looking for, it’s probably best to look for a church other than ours. While our worship is engaging, and some would say “relevant,” it’s not going to be a highly polished production. I don’t believe it should be. Yes, it should be done with excellence, and well done, because we ought to be giving the Lord our best. But what’s more important is that the content of worship is filled with the Word of God.
  • Our church will never be able to compete with “mega churches.” We don’t have the personnel. Our resources are far more scarce. We’re not able (or willing) to “sell” our church with expensive gifts and incentives that draw people in. In an easily distracting world people tend to gravitate toward things that are more sparkling and flashy. Our church is not that.
  • I wish people would give small and medium-sized church’s a chance. They are filled with people who care. Most everyone knows your name. Your gifts and talents are needed in a significant way to move the ministry forward. You can have a real impact.

My church is filled with people who are ready, willing, and able to welcome you with open arms. I am pleased to serve one of the friendliest church’s of which I have ever been a part. They want you to be part of the family, and they’re genuinely concerned when they haven’t seen you in weeks.

Instead of turning away from a church like this, why don’t you give it a try? You just might like it.

What are your thoughts?

Beethoven’s Trick for Inspiring the Creative Process

Beethoven inspired me. I was having trouble coming up with a topic for this post. That’s when I remembered something that lit my creative fire. A couple of weeks ago I attended the Senior Piano Recital of a good friend. Incredibly, he played by heart three movements of a Beethoven piece (as well as two other compositions). It got me to thinking: What was it that inspired the great masters in their creativity? For Ludwig von B it was a very simple thing: He took walks.

Beethoven discovered that he needed the time for his ideas to incubate into something concrete. So he took regular walks through the wooded valleys of Vienna (that’s modern day Vienna in the above photo). He took along with him a pencil and a few sheets of paper. When he came up with solid musical thoughts he would jot them down.

It’s such a simple lesson, but it’s one that I so often fail to do. The whole idea is to feed your creativity by putting yourself in a different environment. It’s giving yourself time to create. Psychologists tell us that we are more apt to be creative outside of our regular work environment than inside of it.

Let’s take the example of this very post. The idea for it came while I was listening to incredible music played live by a skilled musician. I’ve been letting the idea for a series of posts on the creativity of creative masters ruminate in my head since then. Just now I came inside the house from a short time sitting on our delightful front porch with my wife. As I came inside the idea began to crystallize. Sitting outside in a different environment helped the idea take root and grow.

This whole concept of taking a walk, and “differentiating” spaces, is also true in the creative work I do in my vocation. Most every week I have to write numerous pieces for work, not the least of which is a sermon to preach. I have found that when I write my sermon in my office at church, it’s often like pulling teeth. The background work has been done, but creative ways to communicate the message are difficult to come by.

But when I write in a coffee shop, or in my quiet home, the ideas seem to flow much more freely. In these environments I see different things, I think more freely, I feel more relaxed. More ideas are hatched and they come to fruition on a much more consistent basis.

So thanks to Beethoven, I’m going to try taking more walks and writing in different environments. Why don’t you try the same. I bet it’ll get you off the creative dime. And, as I’ve said many times before, the world needs your art…whatever it may be.

What inspires your creative process?

This is the first of an occasional series of lessons in creativity from creative masters. 

How a Hamburger Can Bring Back Special Memories

Memories are a funny thing. The faintest scent, an old song, or even a hamburger can take you right back to a certain place and time. This comes to mind because they just opened a Culver’s in our neighborhood down here in Florida. Of course I had to get my first Florida butter burger almost immediately.

As I sat there in the familiar blue dining room, I couldn’t help but be transported back. I can’t tell you how many times we went to a Milwaukee-area Culver’s while our kids were growing up. There were the frequent times we went after Little League baseball games. We went after dance recitals. I can even remember being there with our kids and their high school friends a time or two.

Funny how a simple little fast food place can bring families together and create memories. The taste of that burger reminds me of little Benjamin, our son, covered in dirt from playing catcher. There he sits around a table with his baseball buddies. They’re cramming down burgers and fries, then coming over to ask for their ice cream. In the mean time the parents are at another table discussing the finer points of Little League baseball.

Those were formative times. Our kids learned a great deal about life playing baseball. And they learned plenty about good families and family life when they hung around fellow players and their moms and dads after games.

That hamburger reminded me how much I love being a dad. Times change. The kids are grown. I don’t know if we’ll ever all sit around a table in a blue Culver’s dining room. But I’ll never forget the days we did, and the memories they created.

All because of a Culver’s hamburger.

What are the things that jog your memory?