Saturday, July 23, 2011

creativity and control

When do I pull the trigger?

Ok, what was your initial reaction to that question?

If you are a thriller writer, you might be considering when a character should commit a dastardly deed. If you are a hunter, you might be wondering the appropriate time to squeeze off a shot at your furry quarry.

In truth, the question may address a number of scenarios, one of which is trying to figure out when something is done, when it might be time to move on. This is not quite as simple a consideration when your personality tends toward perfectionism, and, if that is the case, well, control issues are likely to creep in.

As a writer I often struggle with how many drafts to write. How many sub-drafts. Mega-drafts. The truth is, with as many drafts as I deal with, I have considered adding insulation to my writing space.  On the serious side, however, there is always a point at which I need to let go. Let it go. Set it free.

Most people are familiar with the paradox of control. Being in control is inescapable. But it is the approach to the control that is the key. One approach is to attempt to control the myriad of details that flood our daily lives. Controlling as many variables as possible is an attempt to manage anxiety. And for the brief period of time that we may able to do so, we are perfect. But....

How many balls can you juggle at one time before things go badly awry? I can juggle one ball with little difficulty on most days. Some days I can do two. The times I have attempted to juggle three balls I have tempted both fate and potential head injury. Multitasking doesn't mean that an adequate job is being performed with each task. This approach, then, may work over a short term, but in the long term it is problematic.

Another approach is to let go of control. Perhaps adopting a Zen attitude. We do our best and whatever happens, happens. What is extremely interesting to me about letting go of control is the paradox mentioned earlier. If you are letting go of control, aren't you, after all, in control of letting go of control, thereby never really "losing" control?

But the difference in the attitude or approach feels different psychologically. It reminds me of exposure treatment of chronic worry. When someone is consumed with worry, there is a very hopeless sense of being pounded by the worry in relentless flurries of attacks. The worrier feels that he or she has no control over the worry. It is a very difficult thought process to manage.

However, if worry is assigned as homework, the feelings shift dramatically. Try setting aside a half hour each night and dedicate yourself to worry. Prior to the worry time, put off the worry. Postpone it until the designated worry time. But when that time comes, worry, deliberately, about all the normal worries and even add some on to them. Worry about world peace. Worry about whirled peas. Worry about the cost of filling your gas tank. Anything you can think of. And...can you do it for a half hour? My experience has been that most people can't. After ten minutes of forced worry, the thoughts and fears are like balloons that are devoid of air. Directing or controlling the worry saps it of its energy.

Send out the short story to the contest. Write "THE END" on the novel. Put your taxes in the mail. Send the important email message you have been meaning to release into the virtual knowledge exchange. Go on, pull the trigger. Take a breath, and then see what your next task might be.

Write on!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Where Nobody Knows Your Name

When you go into an establishment, a familiar one, does everybody know your name?

I would be upset if I were to go into a restaurant or bar and have everyone call me Norm, but I also imagine that Norm felt very appreciated at Cheers. He had his place. His hangout. He had his peeps.

For quite a while (a couple of years, easily), I had been making regular visits to a McDonald's across a busy highway from where I work. I mention the highway because in my earlier days for hoofing it to Mickey's, there were no stoplights, no established pathways for pedestrians. If I was on a mission on a particular day, I would be in "look left, look right, bolt!" mode. It was a great day when traffic signals were installed at the intersection and pedestrian lines painted on the highway. I could get to Mickey's a bit more safely.

The other factor that comes into play is my great friend, Paul. Paul is a child psychiatrist and on the sweltering days of summer he enjoyed getting iced coffee from McDonald's. I had never been a coffee drinker. Never had more than a cup or two of hot Joe ever. And when I had, it was liberally dumped with sugar and cream. And while I have always liked iced tea, I thought iced coffee was some kind of abomination.

But on the day in question, Paul had this glorious iced coffee on his desk. It just looked delicious. Within a few minutes I was across the street and had one of my own. I learned that I could enjoy sugar free vanilla iced coffee and the number of Splenda packets it takes to make it taste perfect.

I started going to Mickey's every work day morning. Later, I added an afternoon walk to get an additional treat. Now, most days, I have two glasses of iced coffee, and I really enjoy them.

One day when I was standing in line, I saw that the same young woman would be waiting on me who almost always takes my order. I stepped up to her, she asked how she could help me, and I began to channel Norm.

As gently as possible, I said, "I come here almost every day and every day I order the same thing. Maybe you can tell ME what it is that I would like."

The young woman puzzled over this and we looked at each other. I certainly recognized her. And my comment appeared to have awakened her.

"Iced coffee, right?"

"Yes, but what kind?"

It took another minute, but we landed on the correct flavor. I thanked her by name, at least the one that was on her name tag.

The next day, the same worker cheerily told me what my order would be. Correctly. She was beaming.

"Now, THAT," I said, "is great customer service."

I was mistaken. A day or two later she saw me walking across the pedestrian walkway on my way to the restaurant. This time, the iced coffee was already made and waiting for me at the register.

Since that time, at least two other workers and assistant managers and now even the manager recognize me and there is a flurry of activity when I walk into the place. I seldom get to order a sugar free vanilla iced coffee any more. It is almost always made before I get to say a word. I speak to these workers by name and always get huge smiles. I thank them for their efforts and have written at least two email messages to corporate McDonald's about their amazing service and what it feels like to be recognized and treated as a regular customer. I know that this reinforcement has been shared with these employees, because I have asked about it. And the assistant manager has told me more than once that no one leaves positive messages. The only thing they hear about is complaints.

At my local McDonald's, I am Norm. I am a regular. I know the names of many people behind the counter. And when I am waiting on rare occasions, there is talk about things that have no connection to restaurants. We just talk like people. Go figure. And when I have the opportunity, I try and let people know that they are doing a good job, and I let their bosses know, too. People enjoy hearing such good news! Reinforcement helps!

I love that iced coffee. And I love when I am recognized as a regular customer, even if nobody knows my name.


Saturday, July 2, 2011


Life is what happens while we are busy making plans for other things. And then other things take center stage, and what was important earlier in the day becomes more inconsequential. And these are truisms. Everyone knows them. But when we are reminded of the big picture, we can't help but take notice. And give thanks, if appropriate.

I had been thinking about what the next blog entry would be about. I had narrowed it down to the potential creative application of bi-phasic sleep cycles to creativity, or the role of the muse in creative endeavors. But before either one could be finalized, life happened.

This morning I was driving in the midst of busy holiday weekend traffic. As usual, traffic was moving too fast and drivers were not being as courteous as they could be. We put ourselves in metal boxes, hurtle through space, and with our anonymity intact, we act as though we own the roads and human beings who do human things can irritate us to no end.

In my rearview mirror I was aware of a woman following a little too close for my comfort. In front of me, however, was where the action was. Someone cut in front of an SUV two vehicles in front of me. The driver of the SUV hit her brakes and stopped quickly. Behind her, the motorcyclist was not so fortunate. He tried to stop but had to dump his Harley and flew over its handlebars into the SUV as his bike skidded behind him. In that split second, I was certain that one of two things was going to happen. Either my brakes were going to lock and I was going to hit the motorcyclist, or in the midst of trying to stop I would be hit from behind, causing me to flip over or pushing me over the man who just crashed to the highway.

I braked hard and veered right. Beside me was a van, and the driver also veered right as far as he could, but he was hemmed in on the other side by a tractor trailer. I waited for our vehicles to smash together. Our side mirrors made contact. The other driver stopped and I pulled over beside the median. My mirror was mangled and a piece of fiberglass had popped off. The other driver's mirror was also broken. We both ran back to the cyclist who was miraculously moving. At least enough to stand up. He may have ended up with a broken shoulder. After traffic was stopped enough for vehicles to be pulled to the side of the road, and while we waited on an ambulance and a state trooper to show, there were four of us sharing the scene. And the discussion was all focused on the same point. Somehow no one was killed. Each of us would be leaving the accident scene.  The van and my vehicle had, at worst, busted mirrors. We were darned lucky.

I have to call my insurance company. I may write about the accident more in a journal, just to get the last bits of cortisol out of my system. Neither task was one I had envisioned at the beginning of the day. But compared to the other potential outcomes, I got off easy. And I am giving thanks.

Creatively yours!