Thursday, January 31, 2008

Creativity Tips: You Lost Me At Hello

Earlier this week, my friend (and this blog's resident cartoonist) Mike Brown rceived an email from the American Heart Association. Here's how it started:

Dear Brown,
This Friday, February 1, is the fifth anniversary of National Wear Red Day. It's the day to wear your favorite red clothes or accessory -- a red blouse, a red dress pin, a fabulous red handbag -- put on red lipstick, or sport a red tie and red socks.

I'd have hit "delete" at Dear Brown. Mike is more patient than I am -- I think he stuck with it until the fabulous red handbag.

Avoid the heartburn. Know your audience. Write to the audience. And please: Sweat the little stuff -- like the programming for names. It really does make a difference.

OK. I will now put down my red pen, because -- marketing mistakes or not -- this is a wonderful cause. And I'll wear my red lipstick tomorrow!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Creativity Tips: Let it Flow

Reading yet another pathetic story re: "What in the world can I do tonight since my TV shows aren't on?" made me think about the striking writers. I don't care what they're watching, but I wonder what they're writing.

Here's why: If you turn on a faucet that hasn't been used for a long time, the water is brown and glunky. Let the water run for a while, and it turns clear and clean.

It works the same way with writing and other creative acts -- whether we're talking about managing people, painting a picture or planning a party. If you don't use a skill, you get rusty. Use it daily, and the good stuff starts to flow.

So, since the predominant "On Strike" picket-sign copy is a tad bit less than catchy, I certainly hope the striking writers are writing something more.

P.S. If you're one of the people mourning your lost TV shows, you know my advice: Really show your support for writers. Read a book. I'll even suggest one connected to TV -- Samurai Widow by Judith Jacklin Belushi. Should be in your library. Post your book suggestions here!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Creativity Tips: Inch by Inch, Row by Row

If you believe the old song, "inch by inch, row by row," is the best way to make your garden grow. I believe.

I also believe it's a great approach for art. My daughter Mary went into her freshman art class saying, "I can't draw!" A few days later, she came home with this -- a really cool picture she drew by graphing the paper, and copying a picture from a magazine, inch by inch and row by row.

Could she have drawn the whole face? Maybe not. Could she draw one square inch of the face? Absolutely.

It's one more sign that breaking jobs down into doable chunks works. So, again, smaller is better! (Stop it. You know what I mean.)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Creativity Tips: You Don't Know Everything

Let me tell you a story from my creativity presentation:

Years ago, during a vacation to Disney World, my husband and I were with the girls in the Alice in Wonderland section. Suddenly, the Queen of Hearts marched up, grabbed an autograph book out of my daughter's hand, and angrily scrawled something on a page. She then threw the book at me and huffed off.

We were all astonished. Why was she so upset? I read the note, "There's only one Queen in this park!"

Now, granted. I am more than capable of being a diva. I have been known, now and then, to act like a queen. But I was on good behavior that day. I promise.

My husband started laughing. I didn't see the humor. "It's your T-shirt, honey," he explained.

He was right. I was wearing a T-shirt with the royally offensive caption, "It's good to be queen."

Tip? I don't know everything. You don't know everything. And just because we don't get something immediately, doesn't mean it's not creative, or funny, or smart, or 100% on target.

Today, when someone says something you think is completely off, consider this: Maybe they see something you don't.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Friday Fun: Sex, Politics and Religion

Well, of the three "forbidden" topics, I've hit on sex and religion during my first month of blogging.

Why stop there? Here's a fun political poll. If you're having trouble choosing your favorite presidential candidate, Minnesota Public Radio can help.

Thanks to Amber for the poll, and Steve for the cartoon!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Creativity Exercise: Stop Apologizing

Today's exercise comes to you from poet Douglas Goetsch, who taught the workshops I took at the 2007 Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

  1. Take out a clean sheet of paper.
  2. Write: It's fairly new, but it smacks of genius.
  3. When you're tempted to apologize for anything you've created -- whether it's a new dessert, a photograph or a financial analysis -- read the sentence. Out loud. That's the only excuse you're allowed to make.

Absolute truth: At the workshop, when Doug would stop people from making excuses, and have them say this line instead, they went on to read their poems with more confidence. The rest of us laughed at the line, but we listened for the part that "smacked of genius." And, since we were listening for it, we heard it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Creativity Tips: And After You Begin ....


Now, that's a problem. At least it is for many of us.

Here's the tip: Give yourself a deadline and find someone to hold you accountable.

For example, I finished knitting my first scarf (and I use the words "knitting" and "scarf" very loosely), because Mary wanted to wear it on Christmas. I was a day or two late, but I got it done.

Now, I'm knitting this scarf for my other daughter, Kate. Technically, it's much more scarfish. Scarfy? Scarflike? But, there's no deadline attached. And Kate's only comment has been, "That's great. I'll wear it every day, Mom."

Apparently sarcasm is inherited. Unfortunately, sarcasm isn't a great motivator. This is a tremendous disappointment to me, in so many ways. But, I digress.

Here's the point: With no deadline and no accountability, I take the project out once in a rare while, knit a row, and put it down. It's not getting done. It's not finished.

So repeat this formula after me:

Begin again. And again. And again.
Finish. Then, celebrate!

P.S. Kate's birthday is at the end of March. Anyone want to hold me accountable for the scarf?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Creativity Exercise: Begin

That's it.


You know what you want to do. Here's what you need to do.
Begin. Today.

And begin again tomorrow.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Creativity Tips: Pull Over

Despite my eight years of hard labor at a mellow rock radio station, I still like James Taylor. One reason why: He's a star at letting other people shine.

I saw him perform a few years ago in Kansas City. When a back-up singer or musician was doing a solo, Taylor walked over to the side of the stage. That's not unusual. But Taylor took it one step further: He knelt down, to ensure that he was out of the spotlight. (And kneeling down was the only way to do it. He's what my mother-in-law would have called, "one long drink of water.")

So today's creativity tip comes from James Taylor: Pull over. Get out of the spotlight and let someone else shine. It's a move that makes everyone happy ... even a grouch.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Friday Fun: D'oh!

My mama says, "Little things amuse little minds."

This week, my little mind has been amused by turning friends, family and myself into Simpson cartoon characters.

Now if Homer would only show up at the Kwik-E-Mart to meet me ...

(A tip of the Creative Instigation hat to John Puglia for the idea!)

Friday Fun: D'oh! Part 2

No matter how creative your ideas are, it's always good to have a back-up plan. For example, a few people have tried to "Simpsonize" themselves via the blog link, and the "transformer" site wasn't working.

Hopefully it's working now, and you have time to play. But, if it doesn't work -- or if you're in a rush -- here's a quick Friday Fun back-up idea: Take the Simpsons personality test. Being the responsible sort (you know, the kind who quickly fakes a back-up plan), I'm Lisa.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Creativity Exercise: Breathing Lessons

Here's a two-part creativity exercise that will give your brain a boost. And your heart. And your bladder. And all those other cute little parts.

  1. Find a quiet space -- an office, a bathroom, inside your car, wherever. Breathe in deeply through your nose; really fill your lungs. Then, breathe out fully through your mouth. Repeat 9 times, for a total of 10 breaths.

    You can do this sitting or standing. If you're driving, I recommend sitting.
  2. OK, now that your brain is fully oxygenated, think back. Was "I don't have time for this!" your first response to the exercise?

For the record, that's ridiculous. And I can say that with authority, because it's generally my ridiculous response. Along the same lines, I've heard people exclaim, "It's 3 p.m. and I haven't had time to go to the bathroom yet!" They say this with some pride.

Snap out of it, folks. It's hard to be a creative genius when you're running all day, from chore to chore or meeting to meeting. Today, here's the real exercise: Give yourself a break!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Choose Something Like a Star

At first glance, "... there is a last even of last times," the Quick Quote for the week, may not appear quite as uplifting as last week's "Wherever you go, go with all your heart" from Confucius.

But there's a reason why it's the Quick Quote. That line is an excerpt from Cascando, a poem I read in college, and never forgot. It was in a collection a friend was ready to toss out -- his poetry class was over, so he had no need for the book. (Hmmm. Maybe this is one reason we're no longer in touch.)

Cascando inspired me. Still does. Another poem that continually inspires me is i carry your heart with me by e.e. cummings. Just once, I'd like to write a line as perfect as i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart).

Now, you may think Cascando is massively depressing. And you may not think cummings ever wrote a perfect line. That's perfectly fine. But here's the deal: To be creative, it helps to find your inspiration -- in poetry, in music, in art, in prayer, in love. Today, choose something like a star, and begin.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Thank you. Thank you very much.

My friend Keith Prather recently led a project team I was on -- my participation was minimal, but it's always a pleasure to work with Keith. Here's one reason why: After the project was done, Keith passed along this e-mail response from the client:

Excellent work.

Five words. Jim, president of the company we were working for, probably spent five seconds writing that e-mail. But you know what? He's a busy guy, and that's five seconds he could have spent on something else. Keith is busy too, but he took a few seconds to pass the e-mail on to the rest of the team.

Final result? Jim's sincere "thank you" and Keith's thoughtfulness made us feel appreciated, valued and just plain good.

So, consider this a creativity tip or an exercise, or both. Today, tomorrow, sometime soon: Give someone at home or at work an unexpected, heartfelt "thanks." Or pass along a nice word. You could make someone feel like a king -- and then they'll be singing your praises!

(OK. OK. I'll stop. Elvis is leaving the building.)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Creativity Tip: Be Open to Beauty

Joshua Bell is one of the finest violinists in the world. He plays on a $3.5 million instrument handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari. His music is, by any measure, astonishing.

Yet, on January 12, 2007, when Bell gave an incognito concert in a Washington, D.C., Metro station, hardly anyone stopped to listen.

Why? Name your reason:
  1. He didn't look like a virtuoso -- he looked like just another street musician.
  2. He had his violin case open for donations. People don't want to donate.
  3. It was rush hour. People were rushing.
  4. The commuters didn't hear him. They were on the phone, or listening to an iPod.
  5. We're not children. (Children tried to stop and listen. Parents pulled them away.)

Whatever the reason, the challenge is clear -- if we're not receptive to unexpected beauty, we miss it. So start this week with a promise to yourself: Slow down. Look. Listen. There's music all around us, if we're only willing to hear it.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Weekend Exercise: What's on Your Bucket List?

Bonus! Along with the Friday Fun post, here's a creativity exercise from one of my favorite writers at the Kansas City Star:

"I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions. I started a Bucket List. It’s that list of things you want to do before you die. I want to learn how to use chopsticks, how to fix a flat tire by myself and how to use a caulk gun. What would you put on your list? Send us your Bucket Lists — keep ’em short, please — along with your name, town and daytime phone number. Send them by noon Monday to" Lisa Gutierrez, The Star

Friday Fun: It's 5 O'Clock Somewhere

It is 5 o'clock somewhere, and -- in honor of that -- let me direct you to my favorite brew of the week: He'brew.

This also gives me the opportunity to remind you that humor is one dangerous animal at work.

That said, since I'm a Jewish mother and this is the Friday Fun post, I'll share my favorite Jewish mother joke:

What's the difference between a Jewish mother and a vulture?
A vulture waits until you're dead to eat your heart out.

(WARNING: My mother doesn't find that funny. Humor is also a dangerous animal at home.)

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Creativity Tip: Hey Kids, This is Advertising

Budzilla's comment on Tuesday, "Creativity is the art of forgetting your sources," reminded me of a tip I wanted to share with you ... a tip about the time-honored tradition of "stealing" ideas whenever and wherever you can.

As it turns out, I'll have to talk about that later. Right now, I need to share the tidbit I found when I went online to "steal" a Hamburglar image from McDonald's to illustrate my point.

The Happy Meal site includes very small print that says, "Hey kids, this is advertising." I kid you not. I couldn't make this up.

"Hey kids, this is advertising." Yep, I'm lovin' it.

So, just to make sure we're all clear on this: Hey kids, this is advertising. I write for a living. Writing is how I keep the family fed (generally with food that doesn't come with a toy). So if you know anyone who needs an easily amused and rapid writer, please -- keep me in mind.

And here's a tip to go with the rant: You never know where inspiration or ads will come from, so keep those eyes wide open!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Creativity Tip: How Do You Think?

I was in a meeting with a new client recently, and he said, "You don't need to take notes on this."

I laughed. I absolutely need to take notes on this, no matter what "this" is. Taking notes is how I think -- it's the old reporter in me. I observe, I listen, I take notes. If I don't have a pen in my hand or a keyboard at my fingertips, my thought process is impaired.*

Educator, author and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson tells an interesting "How do you think?" story in his "Do schools kill creativity?" presentation. Robinson shares the tale of Gillian Lynne, the choreographer of "Cats" and other theatrical hits. When she was a child, teachers thought Lynne's constant fidgeting was a sign of illness. A wise doctor determined that she wasn't sick. She was a dancer. Gillian Lynne thinks with movement.

Where and how do you think best? Dancing? Driving? In the shower? Or, do you generate your finest strategic and creative thoughts sitting in a chilly cubicle, unavoidably overhearing someone else's teleconference?

Determine what prompts your best thinking, and embrace it. If you need a pen, grab a pen. If you need to move, move. But while you're doodling and moving, remember: Not everyone thinks the way you think. And I don't just think that. I know it.

*I was once presenting a media training session for Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and I dropped my magical pen. I immediately stopped thinking. And talking. Truly. I had no idea what to say next. Fortunately, Jody Summers was presenting with me. She saved the day by instantly handing me her pen, while at the same time diving under the table to pick up mine. Jody understands how I think. And that kind of thoughtful approach makes a world of difference.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Creativity Exercise: Your Attention, Please

I am writing a poem that includes the line, "Now that I have God's attention." I could tell you where the phrase came from, but that's relatively irrelevant. What I want you to do is:
  1. Take out a clean piece of paper and a pen or pencil. (There are times when writing is best done by hand.)
  2. Write, "Now that I have God's attention" on the first line.
  3. Finish the sentence.

I know several of the regular Creative Instigation blog readers either don't believe in God or have serious doubts. That, too, is relatively irrelevant for the sake of this exercise. Pretending is one of the most fun aspects of creativity.

Once you've written your sentence, celebrate: Put the Jan-approved smiley face at the top of your paper, or a big gold star. And if you want to share your line, well, you definitely have our attention!

Monday, January 7, 2008

Creativity Tip: Celebrate Success!

I'm big on birthdays. (Ask any friend who happens to miss mine. It's a dangerous mistake to make. Feel free to mark it down now: April 22.)

I'm also big on celebrating. Everything. It's so easy to focus on the challenges of life, why miss an opportunity to enjoy the good stuff? Celebrating achievements -- big and small -- helps build a successful, happy and productive creative team.

Today, we have two celebrations of note. Steven Popkes, a loyal, wonderful friend and an amazing science fiction writer, made the February cover of Fantasy & Science Fiction. His featured story, "Bread and Circus," is gaining great reviews.

And Michael Pritchett, an award-winning author and all-around great guy, is making friends and fans on a book tour for his acclaimed novel, The Melancholy Fate of Captain Lewis. For those of you in the KC metro area, Michael will be reading from his novel at 6 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13, at The Writers Place.

As part of the celebration, remember my approach to supporting great writers: Buy early. Buy often.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Friday Fun: What's Another Word for Gaur?

Now, my idea of fun and your idea of fun may vary wildly ... but this is my idea of fun: Go to and expand your vocabulary while you help end world hunger.

You play. Someone else eats. It's all good. Bookmark the site and there's no end to how many words you can learn and rice you can earn.

Thanks to Angela Pritchett for the idea!

P.S. A "gaur" is a wild ox. I missed it. I won't miss it again.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Creativity Tip: Listen and Learn

Everywhere you are, there are people you can learn from -- if you're willing to listen.

While I was at Corporate Communications Group, I learned more about writing and business from Cotton Smith than he will ever know.

Cotton is a fascinating man -- a devoted family man, tremendous business success and a nationally lauded Western author. He's an amazing blend of strategy and creativity, a mix I never appreciated -- in others or myself -- until I worked with him.

One day, Cotton stopped me in the hall at CCG and inquired about the strategy behind an ad I had written for one of his clients. I disdainfully flipped my hair and reminded him that I was on the creative staff.

He politely flipped me back, as only Cotton could do. (Think words, not fingers.)

"What's the first thing you do when you sit down to write?" he asked.

"I think about what the client wants to communicate," I said, in a creatively sarcastic tone. "Then I figure out what would grab the audience's attention and start writing. That's creative."

"That's strategic," he firmly corrected me. "You didn't just sit down and put pretty words on paper. You thought it through, strategically. And I need that strategy to sell this copy to the client."

I winced. I listened. I learned. And I explained the strategy for my headline and copy.

Before he walked away, Cotton looked me in the eye and said, "I don't ever again want to hear you say you're not strategic. Am I clear on that?"

He was clear. I am creative. I am strategic. And I am eternally grateful to Cotton, for this lesson and all the others.

Finding a strategic mentor is truly a gift. To discover what you should look for in a strategic mentor, you can learn a lesson from Mike Brown -- check out his checklist on the mikebrownspeaks blog.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Creativity Tip: Size Matters

I can't lose 20 pounds. I know, because I've tried to lose 20 pounds for 20 years.

So, last year, I decided to forget the 20, and just lose 1.5 pounds per month. And an amazing thing happened: I lost weight. Not every month, but most months. I'm thinner now than I've been in years.

I also know that I can't write a book. I don't have time. However, I do have time to write one entry a day for this blog. So here's my guess: At this time next year, I'll have a book on creativity ready to show an agent. A book cobbled together, page by page, on this blog.

1.5 pounds.
1 page.
Size matters.
And, although I never thought you'd hear me say this,
"Small is better."*

Keep that tip in mind as you start work on your 2008 projects (or resolutions). Instead of focusing on one huge final objective, create a small, attainable goal. When you reach it -- and you will -- set the next small, attainable goal. And when you reach that one, keep going.

On the way, let me know what amazing things you're accomplishing, one small step at a time!

*No, I do not mean for everything. It's a new year, but I'm the same old me.