John Cleese on Creativity

A few years ago I heard a talk by John Cleese on creativity. Readers may remember him from Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, and the antic skits of the characters.

Cleese didn’t talk about the expected issues of creating characters or structuring story lines. His focus was on creativity broadly defined, and how each one of us can learn to be creative. One comment in particular stayed with me because it seemed simple but also hard. It wasn’t particularly profound but it was the kind of insight that came as the result of experience. He said one of his co-workers jumped on the first idea that came, he was sure it would work, and he insisted on going forward with that. I certainly understand the feeling of facing a problem in a story and having a solution fall into my brain that seems absolutely perfect because I want it to be perfect. Not knowing what to write next is extremely uncomfortable. Maybe other writers don’t feel that way, but I certainly do. My instinct is to grab the solution and run, grateful for having an answer to my problem pop up.

Cleese’s warning was this. The first idea to come isn’t the best. His co-worker, Cleese felt, invariably produced something far less successful or not at all successful than what he would have developed if he’d waited. Cleese’s point, put less elegantly, is to consider the first idea the clutter that is concealing the better ideas, which require more time to surface. As frustrating as this can be, he’s right. 

Living with uncertainty is hard especially when you want to maintain the forward motion of the narrative. You’ve set up your characters to act and now you’ve got them marking time, marching back and forth across the page, and you’re worried they’ll lose their mojo. 

My current WIP seemed finished—polished and well put together, the story arc complete. I had a quiet doubt that maybe one or two aspects weren’t quite right, but I was ready to attribute those to the usual insecurities of the writer. I was wrong to do so. I just got the ms back with comments that hit those passages, and they need work. (Thank Heavens for the honest reader.)

This feedback reminded me of an earlier experience when an academic colleague gave me a draft of an article to read and comment on. I pointed out the various spots where he hadn’t answered related questions. He insisted they didn’t matter, but I felt they did. “You have all these puzzle pieces that are part of the question, but you only resolve half of them. You have to resolve all of them,” I told him, “to justify your conclusion.”

In my mystery novel I’m dealing with creating steps in the logic based on facts I created. To solve the problems of the plot, I have to sit with it for several days, listening to the characters, and letting the desire to get things on paper fall away while I wait for my unconscious to work. I have to be patient and trust my own creative resources. I have no idea how long this will take, but it’s necessary. And once the hidden ideas come to light, things will start to make sense, and I can move forward.

If you want to learn more about John Cleese’s approach to creativity, you can explore his book Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide by John Cleese, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50719532-creativity

It Take a Village by Karen Shughart

The setting for the Cozies I write is a village on the south shore of Lake Ontario in New York, and while fictionalized, it closely resembles the village where I live. If you’ve read the books, you might remember that typical of the genre, there’s a close-knit group of characters who, in addition to solving crimes, also get together for social and community events and to provide support in times of stress.

It’s no accident that I chose to model Lighthouse Cove after Sodus Point. It’s much easier to write about what you know, and while the characters in the book are mainly figments of my imagination, the preponderance of people here are as kind and caring as those, other than the villains, portrayed in the books.

Without going into a lot of explanation, a couple of weeks ago our 21-pound Blue Tick beagle, Nova, escaped from our fenced-in yard on a bright, sunny day.  My husband was out running errands, and when I discovered she was gone, I sprang to action and started walking the streets calling her name. One of my neighbors checked to see if she had perhaps wandered into her carriage house. Another, on her way out of town, took a few minutes to drive around to see if she could spot her. A young woman I’d never met was walking her dog and said she’d look, too, and would bring her home if she found her.

After my husband arrived, we fanned the neighborhood on foot to no avail. We decided to post her photo on a couple of local Facebook sites and then get into the car to continue the search, but before we did, I checked my phone. There was a message. One woman who lives about three blocks away had spotted her, and while she wouldn’t come when called, that person herded her to the home of a friend who always keeps treats and a lead at her house. Fortunately, Nova had identifying tags with phone numbers, and we were notified.  Within an hour of her escape she was home safe and sound, tired and a bit scared, but no worse for the wear.

Around dinner time that evening, my phone rang. A friend, who had heard about her escape from another, asked if we’d found Nova and said that earlier, when he’d heard the news, he’d gotten on his bike and ridden around our village looking for her. The next morning, when my husband walked her, a man he didn’t know stopped him on the street and told him he was glad we’d found our dog.

For some, living in such a tight-knit community would be claustrophobic and confining; for us it’s been a blessing. There are many more incidents I can recall where people have banded together to help those experiencing some sort of crisis that I’ll write about at a different time. But for now, I’ll end with expressing gratitude for living in a village where the call for help is always answered.

A Room of One’s Own

by Janis Patterson


I belong to a number of writers’ groups, some of which – at long last! – are starting to meet in person again. The particular group of which I speak is composed of all kinds of writers from working professional to stark-beginner aspirant, and was finally having a real meeting after two years of Zoom-ing. The conversation level was astounding as we all talked full speed full volume catching each other up on what had happened since our last real gathering. (As good as Zoom is for the meat of meetings, it is not up to personal interaction and exchange!)


One woman, who had joined the group only a few meetings before the shutdown, was holding forth, proudly showing photos of her new office. She had acquired one of those monstrous L-shaped desks that can eat half a room. It was festooned with several shelves of reference books, plaques of inspiring quotes, beautiful pictures, a few lovely little objets d’art and even a gorgeous silver vase of fresh flowers. A large brand new Mac computer took pride of place in the typing area and – to the envy of my uncertain back – a new, bright red X-Chair sat in front of it. I will it admit, it took a great amount of discipline not to drool openly over that.


“Now,” she concluded with pride after finishing a highly descriptive virtual tour, “I can be a professional writer.”


Huh?


When pressed for an explanation she said, “Well, one has to have a professional office in order to be a professional, doesn’t one?”


The eyeblinks in the room were almost deafening.


“It’s lovely,” someone said. “It must make writing so much easier. How many books have you done?”


“None yet.”


Double huh?


When The Husband and I inherited our house, we turned the guest bedroom into my office by the simple expedient of adding a small desk and a cheap office chair. Even though I have been publishing for decades I had never had a real office before and it was heavenly. For a number of family reasons, though, it ceased to be an option and I moved my writing center onto a table in the family room, a room shared with our animals, the TV and a newly retired husband. My output did not drop, though – at least, not significantly and not for long. I know a prolific multi-published novelist who writes at the dining room table, and another who has a card table squashed into the corner of her bedroom. There was one who turned the built-in bar in their home into her office and another who has a day job stays late every night for an hour and a half or so to write simply because she cannot write in the chaos of her home. In fact, I know more professional writers who do not have dedicated offices than those lucky few who do.


“You mean you haven’t written anything?” another asked incredulously. “It’s been two years since we last met.”


She looked offended. “How,” she replied only a little huffily, “could I have written anything? It was only delivered last week.”


There was nothing any of us could say to that. We separated into other conversational groups, metaphorically if not physically shaking our heads. This woman had had two years of what basically amounted to house arrest (she does not have a day job) and while many of us had taken advantage of the enforced lack of external activities time to write even more apparently she hadn’t written at all. I myself wrote 1 ½ more books than I would have normally done in that time span, and many of my professional writer friends did even more.


This woman had obviously spent her time poring over design magazines and websites. Now, she proudly proclaims to anyone she can get to listen, since she has a professional office she is a professional writer.


Hey, lady, professional writers WRITE. We write in dens and dining rooms. We write while waiting at the garage and in line waiting to pick up children from school. We have been known to scribble facts and ideas and scraps of dialogue on paper napkins while at lunch. Some of us even write on our phones wherever we happen to be.


I am not a total grinch. Her office is lovely (how I do truly envy her that red X-Chair!) and I wish her much joy in it. It will not, however, make her a professional or any other kind of writer except a wannabe. Only writing and selling makes a true professional. The agents/editors/publishers/readers won’t give a flip if she writes on a huge L-shaped desk or a card table. What matters to them is the story, the words, the worlds she creates… and you can’t order them from any design house.

Writers’ Groups

Twice a month I moderate a writers’ group for men and women writing in diverse genres. This isn’t the first group I’ve worked in, and probably won’t be the last. 

Two people make a group, which means the novel I wrote in college was the topic of a group consisting of me and the typist and sometimes me and my boyfriend. But the first group whose intent was to bring its members’ work to publication was one I joined in 1989, and attended regularly for several years.

I’ve been thinking about groups and their purposes lately because even though I’ve been moderating the current group for several years, I rarely contribute. This one began as a walk-in opportunity for library patrons, but with the advent of the pandemic, we switched to zoom, and over the last several months, using a private (not library) zoom account, we have decided to become a private group, freezing the membership to its present number.

We are here for different reasons. Most groups are organized around a single goal that every participant agrees to. The group focuses on a certain genre, for example. A writer I knew back in the 1990s wanted to start a group for those working on crime fiction set in foreign lands. Since I wasn’t yet writing the Anita Ray series, I was out. The group fizzled. Another group was for established writers, those who had published at least one book in any category and now wanted to work on mysteries. That was fine until the woman who assumed the role of moderator invited writers she met and liked, which changed the dynamic. The unwritten rule that the group decided on whether or not to send an invitation to join after meeting the writer was buried and forgotten. The group of professionals helping others develop their work morphed into an entirely different series of sessions.

Other groups popped up over the years. I enjoyed one that included four people, including a moderator who gave lots of advice and then checked up on us to see if we followed it. I didn’t last long. In another we got assigned pages to read and comment on, which felt like work in addition to what I was writing.

I have enjoyed and learned from every one of these groups, but probably not what the group organizers were expecting. First, the more diverse the genres the better. A poet among mystery writers will teach about language and the rhythm of language. Writers of fantasy among literary fiction writers will challenge others’ imagination. Writers of nonfiction in a group of novelists will challenge us to describe reality, settings, physical details with greater precision. 

But mostly, groups of any kind of diversity will teach us about human nature. I still look back on some of the earlier groups to pluck out humorous or unexpected quirks for a fictional character. There’s nothing like watching writers grapple with different points of view on something intensely personal to them to see an emotional range in human behavior. The more diverse the group, also, the wider and more free-flowing the discussion, something I always enjoy.

Every writers’ group I’ve ever been in has been a terrific learning experience for which I’m grateful—the good will, the insight, the language skills, the thoughtfulness, the overall support. Writers are generous people, always ready to help their colleagues. I may not get (or ask for) help with a specific piece, but I gain every time I listen and learn.

It Never Rains in Southern California by Karen Shughart

We just returned from a visit with our son and daughter-in-law, who live in southern California. There was a song in the 1970s entitled It Never Rains in Southern California, and although the lyrics did not particularly inspire joy, the title is apt, it truly hardly ever rains in southern California. As my son reminded me when I mentioned how nice it was to not have to deal with the inconsistent weather events like blizzards and blinding rainstorms like we do here in the northeast, he reminded me that California has plenty of their own climate issues: mudslides, fires, earthquakes, and damaging winds. Good point.

During our visit we sat under a pergola in their backyard and snacked on tangerines picked from a nearby tree. One night for dinner we ate freshly-caught Pacific salmon with lemon slices we plucked from another. Avocados, plentiful in that part of the world, hang heavy on branches drooping over fences A bottle brush tree with vivid red flowers and clusters of bright yellow daylilies attract a multitude of hummingbirds and Monarch butterflies. The air is redolent with sun-ripened foliage and the salty brine that drifts inland from the broad, blue Pacific Ocean.

Photo by Gary Barnes on Pexels.com

We arrived back in New York to a gray, cloudy day with a drizzle of fine rain and yet, when we pulled into our driveway, our daffodils and forsythia were beginning to bloom, the hyacinths were emerging from the earth, and nestled in among our own burgeoning daylilies were bright, purple violets, signs that spring is surely on the way. While the weather is fickle, each day here brings a surprise; now some days are warm and bright, on others, winter doesn’t want to lose its frosty grip.

I thought about how climate and weather affect writing. My Cozies are set in a small village along the south shore of Lake Ontario, much like the village where we live.  Four defined seasons provide the setting to the mysteries:  a dark, stormy, windblown night is a metaphor for what’s to come, as is the juxtaposition of bright summer days and a murder that’s occurred in a lush garden setting.

If we lived in California, I would still be writing Cozies, but they would different. Mine have a backstory based on the history of our state: the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Underground Railroad, to name a few. If we lived in California, I’d choose Spanish Missions, the Mexican American War, or the Gold Rush.   The setting, too, would change. A California beach town and one on Lake Ontario have few characteristics in common, our beaches are rocky and not as wide, we don’t have sidewalks and parking lots along the water, and the distance across the lake to Canada is a mere 80 miles, compared to more than 6,000 to China. We do, surprisingly, have pelicans, but we’ve never seen a whale. Still, it’s fun to contemplate what I’d do differently if my mysteries were set in a part of our country where it never snows, hardly ever rains, and the sun shines almost every day.