Skimming Creativity

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Over the last year and a half, I’ve learned how to walk along the beach without disturbing the gulls that gather in bunches up and down the coast. At first they flew whenever I got near them, but after awhile I discovered that if I approach quietly at a steady pace, and avoid making eye contact, most of the gulls (Ring Billed, Common, Laughing, or Herring) tend to walk toward or away from the water just enough to clear a path for me through the middle of the flock.

They might complain. The Laughing Gulls almost always do! But only the most skittish gulls take flight, frequently joined by the terns, and they usually fly only a few feet before dropping back down into the sand as I pass them by.

Black Skimmers are a different story. They visit our beach only a few months each winter and they fly as soon as I get anywhere near them, permitting me to accumulate numerous blurry photos that feature their tail feathers.

Last Friday as I walked north along the shore I repeatedly approached a flock of Black Skimmers. Before that day, I hadn’t seen more than four or five together, but this time over two dozen were gathered at the water’s edge. When I came within 10 feet of them they took flight as a group, first out over the water and then arcing back to the sand a little farther up the shore. When I caught up to them again, they took flight once more out over the surf and back to the sand a little farther ahead. This pattern was repeated a couple more times until the Black Skimmers dropped back into the sand with a similar size group of Sanderlings and a handful of Laughing Gulls.

As I approached this mixed flock, the Laughing Gulls squawked a bit and sidestepped into the water, the Sanderlings chattered and trotted farther inland, and the Black Skimmers once again took flight all together but this time they flew the opposite direction. Once out over the surf, the Skimmers turned south and flew behind me. For a moment I thought they’d figured out that I wouldn’t disturb them any more if they let me get past them and then dropped back down with the gulls and the Sanderlings.

But that wasn’t their plan. Instead they circled behind me on the right, flew up alongside me on the left, and then on up ahead, landing beside the water once more about 20 yards in front of me. We resumed our previous pattern with the Skimmers flying on down the coast each time I approached and remaining just out of reach, until I arrived at the walkover where my car was parked and left the beach. As I got into the car and headed home I wondered how many times we would need to do that same dance before the Skimmers got used to me like the gulls and terns have, and simply moved off to one side, complaining, as I passed by.

Creativity frequently eludes me much like those Black Skimmers. I’ll catch a glimpse of a new idea, a fresh connection, but as I approach it takes flight, wheeling out over the ocean of thoughts in my head, and sometimes circling back around me before landing just out of reach. I have to be careful not to make any sudden moves, loud noises, or eye contact, until the new idea and I have had a chance to feel each other out a bit, grow accustomed to each other, and convince ourselves that neither poses a threat. Only then can I get a good look, and maybe even snap a photo or two.

Three generations of coastal interaction

Jax Beach winter days separate the tourists from the locals. Tourists enter the water without a wet suit. Locals do not.

IMG_7047On a warm winter day a couple of weeks ago, when the temps were high enough that the locals were only wearing light jackets during their beach visits, I watched an older man, his son, and his grandsons near the surf. The grandfather was a local, dressed in jeans, jacket, and hat, and wearing shoes. He stood a few feet back from where the water met the sand, smiling as he watched the others.

The son, barefoot with long shorts and a shirt but no jacket, was standing ankle-deep. He appeared to be straddling the line between comfortable and pained, looking back at the grandfather occasionally but mostly keeping his gaze focused on his sons.

The grandsons were nearly waist deep in the surf, jumping each time a wave crashed into them, apparently unfazed by the temperature of the water or the air. They were wearing jeans/shorts and t-shirts, all quite wet.

Having lived here a little over a year now I instantly knew–grandpa was a local, and son and grandsons were…

“Tourists,” my husband said, shaking his head and smiling. As we left the beach, grandpa, son, and grandsons, remained three generations of coastal interaction, from all in to just getting feet wet to opting for observation from dry land.

In this regard the coast has an awful lot in common with creativity, art, and writing. Some watch and enjoy the view, some dabble in the shallows along the edge, and some dive right in. Each has their place and purpose.

Which are you?

Out there somewhere?

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 Are you out there Mary Lee?

Cue the Jaws theme music…

Local news has been excitedly giving shark play by play for the past week. Two female great white sharks tagged by Ocearch near Cape Cod last September have been pinging just east of Jacksonville. The smaller shark, 14 ft long Genie, has stayed well off shore, passing her time along the Gulf Stream. But the big girl, Mary Lee, who is 16 feet long and weighs more than 3000 pounds, has been hanging out much closer to shore, actually pinging within the surf late in the day on January 7th. That’s when Ocearch notified local police and Mary Lee became the topic of conversation around town, almost as if she were the first shark ever to visit our shore.

That’s also when I became addicted to the Ocearch tracking website. Imagine how thrilled I was to discover that when Mary Lee pinged closest, she was just off shore from where I typically access Jax Beach! If only I’d been walking then I might have seen…well nothing actually, because it was dark when she was that close.

I’ve seen a lot of interesting things in the water as I’ve walked the beaches here over the past year. I’ve seen dozens of dolphins, feeding and playing in the surf, and scaring uninformed people who can’t tell the difference between a dolphin fin and a shark fin. I’ve seen what must have been a good sized sea turtle but I was too far away and it was too dark to be sure. And one especially wonderful evening during high tide I watched a couple of manta rays feeding just a few feet away from where I and several other beach lovers were gathered at the water’s edge, oohing and ahhing and reassuring some idiots walking by that no, really, those were not sharks.

I know a lot of people have a strong fear of sharks, and I’m not interested in a close encounter with one myself, but they are not every unidentified swimming creature in the sea, or the only ones to avoid. Jellyfish, for example, can be very unpleasant, but there aren’t near as many movies about them and I don’t hear a lot of people pointing and yelling “jellyfish” when they see something in the water.

Sharks are clearly made out to be the bogeymen of the sea, but the sea is their natural habitat and they are doing what sharks were born to do–swim and eat. They are merely one more type of ocean and coastal life to observe, no different than the dolphins, sea turtles, pelicans, gulls and osprey.

There are plenty of sharks out there that we don’t see or hear about, many more than the two great whites that Ocearch recently named and tagged. Local surfers complain about a bull shark that frequents the area near and just south of the pier. We also have black tip sharks in these waters, but for the most part, this apparently isn’t a place where a lot of shark encounters occur. It may be a long time, and a lot of walks, before I get a glimpse of a shark in local waters.

That’s ok. I don’t mind waiting. They’re out there, somewhere, along with their untagged friends. The great thing about Mary Lee pinging near the Jax Beach shore is the reminder that just under the surface, just out of range of our everyday experience, is a world we cannot see without effort, risk, or technology.

Beneath those beautiful breakers there is a world of life that carries on without our observance or assistance. It is the same with creativity, be it any type of art, music, or creative writing. Behind those layers of paint, that sculpted curve in clay, that delicate note, and that well-turned phrase, is a combination of observation and imagination, born of the knowledge that things aren’t always as they seem, and the courage to explore and express what is found.

 

Second pass changes

My beach walks consist of parking the car, crossing over the dunes and heading straight for the water, and then walking along the shore for a couple of miles, turning around, and walking back. I almost wrote “retracing my steps” instead of “walking back,” but that would have been inaccurate. My steps seem to disappear almost as quickly as I make them in the ever shifting sand.

Although I have been taking these walks nearly daily for more than half a year, I continue to be surprised by how much changes in the time it takes me to cover the same ground twice. Whether the tide is coming in or rolling out, whether the wind is blowing sand or not, whether the beach is crowded or nearly empty, change is constant along my route.

In those early walking days I often made the mistake of procrastinating. If I saw something interesting to take a photo of, or investigate, or maybe a shell to pick up, I would hesitate and tell myself I’d do that on the way back. But I quickly learned that putting it off usually meant losing the opportunity. Maybe whatever it was washed out to sea before I returned. Maybe someone else picked up that shell. Maybe a gull carried something shiny away. Whatever the case, waiting until my second pass meant missing the moment.

During a walk last week I started thinking how much this is and isn’t like the process of converting a first draft of a piece of writing into a second draft.

Sometimes a second draft is such a considerable change from the first rough attempt that it is nearly unrecognizable. Shiny things and beautiful landscape from the rough draft are discarded or at the very least altered enough so as to appear new. Sometimes a second draft nearly obliterates the first one, taking the raw material and rearranging it as severely as a gust of wind or strong wave rearrange sand and sweep baubles away.

The difference lies in who or what controls the change.

With the coast, nature is absolutely in charge. Wind, waves, and rain sculpt the sand and deposit goodies on the shore. Yes, humans are part of that nature, but I am not directly in charge of the creation at large. I’m just an observer.

When taking a second pass at a writing project, however, I am the creator. I decide what stays and what goes. I mold the raw materials into the shapes that I imagine. Even so, I sometimes find myself surprised by the differences of the second pass.

Of course there are exceptions. On this morning’s walk I noticed a shell with friends attached to it at the water’s edge. I was only about half a mile into my walk, just hitting my stride, and decided not to stop to take a picture. I told myself I’d snap a pic on the way back if the shell was still there. As I passed it a wave covered the shell and my feet and I figured the shell would be long gone when the water receded.

Thirty minutes later it was right where I left it, waves still lapping at it occasionally. The lighting was less than ideal and I didn’t take a great pic but here it is…

Similarly, when I opened the file for the rough draft of this post, I found it already said most of what I was thinking. I just needed to add an ending.

Today was one of those days when the second pass didn’t change that much after all.

Tern, tern, tern

Inspiration doesn’t always come easily, even when I stick to routine, write on schedule, and tempt my creativity with the sights and sounds that bring me ideas and the peace of mind to pursue them.

I can do all the right things, and still sit down at the keyboard only to find that I have nothing to say.

That’s not the case for me today, however. Today I have far too much to say, about too many topics. My thoughts are like this flock of terns at the beach this morning, each taking flight at the same time and not necessarily with the same destination in mind.

Royal Terns, Jax Beach, 5-14-12

I find this harder to deal with than what is traditionally known as writer’s block. I cannot, after all, write simultaneously on multiple projects at once, no matter how much my mind wishes to do so.

Or can I?

I used to think that was a no-no, that to be disciplined as a writer I had to force my brain to work on just one project at a time. When I had days like this I would refuse to add even a word or a note to anything but the work in progress at that time. This didn’t make me more productive. And worse yet, I seemed to forget those bursts of inspiration for other projects when the time came to work on them. Eventually I gave up on my one-at-time rule and focused instead on trying to keep up with ideas as I had them, even if that meant working on more than one thing at a time.

This is one of those days when I have files for multiple projects open, adding bits to one and editing pieces of another. I may not feel like I have accomplished much on any particular project by the end of the day, but at least I’ll have the comfort of knowing that I didn’t miss the chance to add any of the ideas I have flying through my head to their appropriate projects.

Here’s to creativity taking flight, and to holding on for the ride!

Writing is writing is writing, except when it’s personal

As we know, writers write (and artists sketch and paint, and sculptors sculpt, and dancers dance). That’s both a true statement and excellent advice. We must practice not just to improve but to maintain. Absence of creative activity makes the artist grow rusty.

But for writers, is all writing created equal? Does it have the same effect? Serve us equally well? Yes and no.

In many ways, writing is writing is writing. It works the same muscles and stimulates the same brain cells. But over the years I have noticed that all writing is not equally fulfilling, especially for me.

I am one of the “lucky” writers that writes for a living. That has been the case for me during happy moments of my career. As a journalist, a publisher, a documentation specialist and now as a consultant, I have earned my paycheck by putting words to pages. Often I put quite a lot of words to pages. But this isn’t always a good thing for the other writer in me, the one who writes because she can’t imagine NOT writing.

Writing for a living means that my writing, and with it my time, is divided roughly into two categories–work and personal–with work always receiving priority status.

Bill do have to be paid after all.

It would be great if the writing I call personal–the manuscripts, stories, and essays–brought in enough money to pay my bills. It would also be great if cash sprouted from the ground like weeds. While I wait for either of those scenarios, I have to prioritize accordingly.

Work writing hones my writing skills, and requires a fair amount of creativity as well, but it’s just not the same for me as when I open the file for my current book in process, or scribble down lines that have been dancing in my brain, or sketch out a character that has been talking to me.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about missing blogging when life and work combined to knock me off of my routine and therefore cut out any and all personal writing time. But I haven’t blogged about what type of personal writing that I do, so I thought I’d take a moment to introduce my personal writing self.

I write a little bit of everything. I have several fiction novel manuscripts in various stages of completion/endless rewrites, about a dozen finished short stories, and a handful of flash fiction pieces. But my favorite type of personal writing is creative nonfiction, probably stemming from my introduction to journalism at an impressionable age. I have two creative nonfiction book length manuscripts and I’m currently working on a third. I’ve also dabbled in essay writing and have taken stabs at the creative nonfiction equivalent of flash fiction, with mixed results. I steer clear of poetry, leaving that to my husband. It’s not good for married writers to compete, right?

My personal writing is what gets pushed off my To Do list when work and regular life gets busy. But that can only go on for so long before I feel that restlessness that only being creative can cure. When that happens, I MAKE time to write what I want to write…after I meet those pesky work deadlines, of course.

Tidal Pools of Creativity

Yesterday I was lucky enough to take my walk along the beach at my favorite time–about half way between high and low tide, with the tide going out. It’s my favorite time because of the tidal pools.

Jax Beach, 5-1-2012

What I like about tidal pools is that they are never exactly alike. Even pools that regularly form in about the same location vary in shape, depth, behavior, and duration depending on the sun, sand, water and wind.

What they trap varies as well. Some have beds of shiny shells. Some have rivers leading back to the receding sea. Some have walls so shallow that it seems the water isn’t trapped at all, but merely hanging out there by choice. Others have walls steep enough to make them an excellent makeshift kiddie pool for toddlers.

Lately the tidal pools at Jax Beach have been home to schools of tiny fish. Ranging from less than 1/2 an inch to almost an inch and a half long, these groups of fish trapped in the pools, or scurrying along those temporary streams between some of the pools and the sea, have broken up my walks with stop and point activities.

“There’s another batch!” I tell my husband as I point and stare.

This wrecks one purpose of my walk–to log exercise miles–but is perfect for the other reason I put my feet to the sand–creative inspiration. I love watching the worlds formed by each pool, with its unique characteristics and inhabitants seemingly unaware that I’ve already passed half a dozen such worlds in the last quarter mile of beach.

Each started with the same ingredients, but created something original. That’s what we artists do every day.

In a former life I published an ezine and one of its most popular features was a page of potential story titles or ideas punnily called the “Title Pool.” Readers would submit entries to be posted on that page for all to use or misuse as they saw fit. I now keep a private Title Pool file for puns, phrases, or snippets of songs, poems or conversations that catch my attention and seem like they may lead to something.

Create you own and see how it captures and inspires your ebb and flow of ideas.

 

Death, taxes, and the necessity of routine

Death and taxes are not the only certainties for me. I can also count on the loss of routine knocking me clean off the writing wagon.

That has been the case for me over the past few weeks. My routine sank into the sea and my regular blog entries and all personal writing plans washed away like so much sand art I trudge through during my beach walks. Oh, and, of course, my beach walks suffered the same fate as my blog entries and personal writing, which in turn threw me farther off track. Vicious, vicious, circle.

What derailed my happy routine days? What upended my regular weekly cycle of write, sleep, write for work, beach, write more for work, eat, write, sleep?

Well, one of my cars broke down, my husband had surgery and recuperated at home, one business project ended with my delivery of a full report and recommendations, another business project started with my development of a huge, detailed proposal and the tax deadline arrived, all in the span of one short week. Eight days, to be precise.

Everything turned out fine, except that I failed to post weekly blog entries for two weeks straight and gained two pounds.

Coincidence? Probably not.

I am most definitely a creature of habit. I have routines for everything and when I follow them they serve as a road map to my health, happiness, and productivity. When I abandon them, look out hopes and dreams!

It wasn’t as if I didn’t do any writing during my off track days. That report and proposal didn’t create themselves. But anything that wasn’t strictly business suffered a bit and I suffered with it. Like most artistic people I’ve known or known of, I’m only fully happy when I’m creating.

And so, besides offering an excuse laden apology of sorts for not posting here for a couple of weeks, I urge you to take stock of your own routines, superstitions, and must haves. What do you need to maintain your creative endeavors?

Whatever it is, guard it with your life, especially when life gets a little crazy.

A foolish day for a walk

Midday on a hot Sunday in Spring is not the ideal time for a walk along the beach. But I went anyway.

Jax Beach, FL - April Fool's Day 2012

Labeling it crowded would be grossly understating the scene. The beach was packed and the tide was already high and still rising, forcing everyone there to share increasingly less space. There was a lot to see, sure, but not a lot of room to do anything that involved moving from place to another along the coast.

This was when I decided to take my walk. And at first it seemed like a mistake.

I’m not one of those people who exercises at the same time or even exactly the same place each time. I procrastinate. I get bursts of energy and decide to go for it right then. I am all over the map at times and therefore wasn’t the least bit surprised to discover as I crossed over the dunes that early on a Spring Sunday afternoon was not the best time to get my walk in.

But I also didn’t let it discourage me. I switched on my pedometer and started weaving between towels, hairs, umbrellas and people toward the shore. Once there, I headed south, focusing only on the few feet of sand in front of me rather than the crowds of people ahead, behind, and surrounding me.

At first it looked like walking even a couple of feet would be impossible. Walking a couple of miles seemed out of the question. But I took that first step determined to make it work.

I had to dodge a lot of people who couldn’t care less if I walked or not. I had to stop and restart when beach balls or babies crossed my path at the last second. I had to weave around fishermen and football-throwing teens. I had to share space with squawking gulls used to having sand to land on.

I also got to watch a fisherman rescue and stingray and send it back out to sea.

Pretty soon it was time to turn around and retrace my steps, and although even more people had crammed together on the beach by then, the walk back actually seemed easier.

Maybe I’d simply adapted to the distractions and obstacles, which is what any writer has to do if they want to consistently produce.

Writers and other artists often find themselves trying to create in less than ideal situations. Crowds. Obstacles. Distractions. These don’t disappear just because we have deadlines or if we’re just not feeling “it” that day.

At those times we have to create anyway. We have to make that first move determined to get where we want to go.

Sometimes we have to get creative to be creative. And sometimes that leads to memorable results.

 

Into the wind

There are two kinds of reactions that the local gulls have to windy weather along the coast. Most of them huddle together in the sand, facing the wind with resistance and determination not to be blown away or allow their feathers to get ruffled. But a few abandon the sand and use their wings, not to resist the wind, but to interact with it. They play.

Gulls

There is nothing wrong with hunkering down. Sometimes battening the hatches and facing the storm is the only sensible approach.

But there’s nothing creative about it.

The creative ones are the gulls that see the wind as an opportunity and make the most of it.

On a particularly blustery day this winter my husband and I stepped onto the beach and found ourselves directly under half a dozen gulls hovering just out of reach overhead. They weren’t going with the flow and being blown about. They weren’t fighting the current.

Those gulls were managing the stream to suit their purpose. Not fighting the change, but allowing it to support them and enable their play.

Gulls

We stood there beneath them and watched as they experimented with the air, landed in the sand to rest, and then resumed their game of positioning themselves directly over our heads, at just the right angle to stop flapping their wings, stop moving a feather, and pause right there in midair.

Look at me, they seemed to say. Watch this!

We did.

Now when I visit the beach on blustery days, I watch for gulls playing in the wind. I always find a few, though usually not as many as we watched that first time together. Whether it’s one or a dozen, however, the lesson is the same. When faced with adversity, we can hunker down until it blows over, or we can use what we’re given, manage it, manipulate it, and transform it to create something spectacular.

Gulls

Creating is more fun.

Take every opportunity to soar.