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Archive for the ‘Creativity’ Category

MaxThink satisfies a need for thinking with a computer that I wrote about 30 years ago and reproduced in a post on September 12, 2009, Time Travel: Musing About MaxThink & More… I invite you to hop back and read the earlier post before continuing.

MaxThink (for DOS) opening screen

I’ve been using computers for about 30 years and in all that time, I’ve only found one program that comes close to the genius of Neil Larson and his old DOS version of MaxThink, the unique and wonderful idea processor, and that’s Brainstorm, a thinking and planning aid program that I used and liked for a few years on my Windows desktop machine. Brainstorm was close but not quite, lacking some of the key features that made MaxThink special.

I began migrating from Windows to Linux almost four years ago and made a complete break over a year ago. I do everything on my Linux Mint 9 Desktop now. Brainstorm runs under Wine but loses some of it’s best features and MaxThink for Windows won’t run at all under Wine (I tried the demo twice last week with no luck), so I’ve installed my old DOS copy of MaxThink94 using DosBox, a DOS emulator created to run old DOS games. MaxThink runs perfectly with DosBox and I couldn’t be happier.

My fingers never leave the keyboard when I’m cranking out ideas and reorganizing them with MaxThink. The keystrokes are intuitive and I was up to speed in a matter of a few days. Not having to use the silly mouse is a huge advantage when you are thinking and typing away.

At first glance, MaxThink is a powerful outliner, but the real power is under the hood. MaxThink came with a fat, printed manual that by some miracle, I still have. Neil’s book is more than a user manual for MaxThink. It’s a well written tutorial on ways of thinking: Evaluative thinking with the Prioritize command, synthesis thinking using Binsort and Randomize to combine information in new ways, curiosity or experimental thinking with the Lock command, systematic thinking using Get, Put and Gather, creative uses of the Sort command, and one of my favorites, segmented lists.

And yes, I end up with a well thought out, complete outline. I can’t print directly, but Neil provides a Write command that saves outlines to an ASCII file that opens in my favorite text editor where I can print the way I prefer anyway.

The journey is everything in creativity and MaxThink makes that journey more productive and pleasant. I created a two and a half page outline mirroring and assisting my writing as I go through lesson three in WritePro. MaxThink helps me to generate new ideas, to discover relationships among ideas, to organize my ideas and to preserve them so I’ll remember and build on the ideas.

The synergy is amazing. Begin a new writing project with an open mind and a blank screen in your editor. Write whatever comes to mind without judging or editing. When you go back for a look, pick out the good stuff, the best ideas and start a MaxThink outline to help organize those insights and discover new ones. Then back to the editor for revisions or a complete re-write. Back and forth between insight and editing until the project is complete. Love the creative journey which is never complete because when one project is finished another beckons.

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Early impressions? After 17 1/2 years? Well, considering that I only used WritePro for a few weeks in 1994, then let the program lie fallow until last week, early impressions are accurate. So what is WritePro? In the words of the author, “WritePro is a hands-on interactive tutorial program for people who want to improve their creative writing skills quickly.” Sol Stein, a respected, master editor and author is the brain behind WritePro. But if you want to get a taste of Stein’s ideas about creative writing before springing for WritePro, I highly recommend his book: “Stein on Writing.” I’ve had this book for a few years and consult it often. It’s good.

WritePro distills Stein’s wisdom into a series of rules (or guidelines in the new edition). My full set of eight lessons contains 140 of these rules. The new, full version is now ten lessons. I completed the first two lessons back in 1994. When I discovered the printouts from these two lessons last week, I set out to recreate what I had done so I could continue the course where I left off.

Lesson one teaches how to create believable characters and how to produce dramatic conflict and begins with the first rule, “Somebody has to want something badly” then jumps immediately into rule #2, “That somebody should be your leading character.” WritePro gets you started by choosing that character for you, Beth Reilly, a 35 year old woman. A text entry box appears on the screen with “Beth Reilly wants” and a blinking cursor. Your job is to create the character. The best way to begin is to simply let your imagination go and begin writing. Don’t worry about being wrong because as you progress from screen to screen you will be given prompts and suggestions on how you might improve your character sketch.

The program saves the content of that first screen as your original so you can go ahead an make revisions as you go. At the end of the lesson, you will be given the opportunity to print both the original and your final draft. Once you finish with Beth, you will create the villain (or opposing character). Villains aren’t necessarily bad, but they are obstacles that create conflict.

When you’ve finished the first lesson, you should have two well rounded characters. You will use those characters, along with three others you’ll create in Lesson two to invent a ‘suspenseful plot’ and weave that plot into two scenes. Sol Stein will be with you the whole way, each new screen offering new rules and suggestions along with plenty of opportunities for re-writing and revising along the way. And remember, whatever you type into the initial box for a new character, scene summary or the scene itself will be saved as the original draft. When you reach the end of the lesson, you can print out character sketches, scene summaries and the scenes themselves and you will get both your original draft and the final version for comparison.

Discovering and reading the old printouts of the two scenes I wrote in 1994 inspired me to get back into the program. I liked what I had written and wanted to see what more WritePro could offer. In the spirit of sharing, I’ve uploaded a pdf copy of those two scenes. You will find the link in a new page I created. Just click on the Stories tab and scroll down to Beth_Reilly, then click on the link to download the pdf file. This will give you an idea of how much I learned in two weeks back in 1994 and another five days transcribing and editing. Keep in mind that the scenes are current, not final drafts and you’re likely to find some grammar and spelling errors.

I started in on Lesson three this week and I’m having fun. This lesson teaches how to write an opening scene that hooks a reader, whose point of view to use and more. I’ll tell you more in a later post.

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The Universe works in strange ways, or so it seems, unless you understand the law of attraction. Last week, I found something that I didn’t know I needed, something I had completely fogotten about, when I was looking for something else.

Last week’s Monday Musings featured several modified contour drawings I had done years ago in June of 1994. I was out of work at the time, having been laid off in the Spring. While looking for work, I was spending my spare time (I had lots of that) trying to be productive and creative.

I was searching for more contour drawings this past Tuesday when I found a dusty old three ring binder. When I opened it, I discovered printouts of some of the creative writing I was doing during that same summer. I found final character sketch drafts and final drafts of the first two scenes from a story that I had completely forgotten. The material was from the first two lessons (of eight) from WritePro, a creative writing program I bought at the beginning of August, 1994. When I saw that the final drafts were dated August 24, 1994, I understood why I abandoned the program. I started an exciting new job five days later as a project manager at Thomas Jefferson University.

All the electronic files are long gone, but I still have the original WritePro program complete with printed manuals. Since I’m serious about developing my skills as a creative writer, I decided that I wanted to finish this course. The version of WritePro that I have is an old DOS version and the OS on my desktop computer is Linux Mint. Now what?

DosBox to the rescue. DosBox is open source software that emulates an Intel X86 running MS-DOS. It was created to run old DOS games, but can also run other DOS programs like WritePro. After I installed DosBox, I fiddled with the screen resolution settings in the configuration file until I got it right. So I’ve got the 17 1/2 year old WritePro working on my desktop. Not only that, I recreated the first two lessons, making a few edits along the way and began lesson three Saturday night.

Well, I got one old MS-DOS program running, why not dig out my old copy of MaxThink 94, also an old DOS program? Got that bad boy running on Sunday morning. Would you believe I still have the excellent printed manual and an instructional cassette tape? I do. In fact I used Max to outline this post. I even figured out how to write an autoexec.bat file that gives me the choice of loading either program automatically.

It’s too soon to write an objective review of WritePro, but I will after I get deeper into the course. I loved MaxThink back in the day and once I reacquaint myself with Max, I’ll write an objective review or two. Both programs are alive and well. WritePro is available as an overpriced ($400) Java program available for Windows or Mac and MaxThink is Windows only, at a very reasonable $29.

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Never ask your left-brain to draw because he doesn’t know how and he doesn’t care either. Try putting your hand out in front of you and drawing what you see.

Left-brain idea of a hand

If you let your left-brain take the job, he’ll (my left-brain is a he of course) draw a hand, not this hand, but a caricature of hand, like the nasty drawing above. Your left-brain will think it lovely because it satisfies his criteria for a hand. He’s good at classifying things but he certainly can’t draw.

Hand Holding a Pipe -- modified contour drawing

If you want to draw a hand, ask your right-brain (I call my right-brain my dragon) to draw what he sees, not a hand holding a pipe, just ask him to trace the outlines of everything he sees. Tell him to take his time and he will, as his eyes trace the details, your hand guides your pencil and an image of a particular hand holding a particular pipe emerges on the paper.

This will drive your left-brain nuts. He has no patience for what he considers unnecessary nonsense and will tell you on no uncertain terms to quit wasting time and get on with it. He’s rude and might jump up and down screaming “talk to the hand” in your virtual ear. Simply smile and ignore him, thinking to yourself that you are the one who is really talking to the hand. He’ll get bored, give up and leave you alone. It simply takes patience and a bit of practice.

Jade Plant -- modified contour drawing

Creativity finds itself in the particular, in the details. Here’s another modified contour drawing that my dragon and I made during the summer of 1994. I put a jade plant in front of us and asked him to draw what he saw.

Creative writing faces the same dilemma. Your left-brain loves to generalize and put everything into neat abstract categories; your right-brain loves the details. Your left-brain wants yes or no answers; your inner dragon loves to imagine the particular, the specific. Here’s an example from my short story “An Emerald Ring” where Elizabeth tells us how she feels about her Aunt Nellie.

Elizabeth could have said “Aunt Nellie was a grouchy old woman” and that’s certainly true but not terribly creative, something your left-brain might say. This is what I wrote instead:

“Grim faced old Aunt Nellie lay there in the coffin, lips so tight it’s a wonder her face didn’t break. Aunt Nellie’s lips barely moved when she talked and if she ever smiled, I never saw her do it. Maybe she smiled in secret, in front of her mirror just for practice.”

When you show your reader, you engage her imagination, letting her draw her own conclusions about Aunt Nellie and how Elizabeth feels about her.

How do you convince your left-brain inner critic to stay out of the way when writing? You give yourself permission to write shitty first drafts knowing that, like a film photographer, you will develop the images later when you edit and re-write, when you welcome the helping hand of your valuable inner critic. When you are writing creatively, your job is to capture the images without editing or censoring.

If you missed the first parts of the series and would like to read them, here are the links:

Monday Musings: An Emerald Ring, the Story

Monday Musings: An Emerald Ring, the Story II

Monday Musings: An Emerald Ring, the Story III

And here’s the link where you can download the full text of An Emerald Ring with my compliments.

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Last week I introduced you to An Emerald Ring, a short story I had just finished, leaving you with the promise of a series of posts describing my creative journey as I wrote An Emerald Ring.

The catalyst was a Kindle book I purchased because it was on sale and the title intrigued me. I had no intention of writing a novel but when I began reading “the 90-day novel: Unlock the story within” by Alan Watt, I was hooked. Why not John? Go for it and I did.

Follow each daily exercise in this book for 90 days and you will end up with a first draft of your novel. You spend the first 28 days “Imagining the World of the Story” and begin your draft on day 29. By the time I reached day 29 I realized that I didn’t want to write a novel. I wanted to write short stories. So I stopped, but not before I learned a host of valuable lessons.

I learned that you can’t make a mistake when writing a first draft because you never stop to judge or correct what you’ve written. The important thing is to let your creative right brain come out to play.

“Storytelling is a right-brain activity. The moment we attempt to come up with logical solutions to human behavior, we are out of the story.” the 90-day novel: Unlock the story within – Alan Watt

I’ve always let my inner critic (my left brain) poke his nose into my writing too early. Al Watt taught me to ignore outcomes and concentrate on the process. It works. I wrote whatever popped into my mind, never second guessing. Save the second guessing for the re-write. I was amazed at some of the insights that came out when I quit looking in the rear view mirror and just wrote.

I took those lessons and applied them to crafting An Emerald Ring. I knew how the story would begin and how it would probably end, but I had no idea how I would get from beginning to end. I began playing in the world of my story, watching the story emerge gradually over many drafts.

Next week, I’ll show you some of my favorite tricks, beginning with my secret first draft writing weapon. If you missed the first part of the series and would like to read it, here’s the link: Monday Musings: An Emerald Ring, the Story.

And here’s the link where you can download the full text of An Emerald Ring with my compliments.

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He feared the asking, she the telling. No rider in memory had ever dared the boulevard on this the night of the low moon. At least no rider had ever returned to tell the tale. Would they be the first? Legend be damned, they were the best. Still, they rode — hard and fast. Neither were fools and neither were eager to temp fate.

Sentinel trees lined the road, waiting for moonrise. Soon — too soon. If the wind parted the clouds? If the stark white light of the low moon etched the shadows across the road before they reached the end of the forest?

Best not to discover what happened to the foolhardy who dared barcode boulevard on the night of the low moon. Less than a klick and safety. Quickly before it’s too late and…

Barcode Boulevard

I rode barcode boulevard today on my bicycle. Can you see the end in the distance? It’s safe in the daylight — mostly. I got the idea for a story one day a few years ago while driving along Breakneck Road (honest, it’s the real name). I’ve only ridden that road twice on my bike and only for a short distance each time. It’s too dangerous and the hills are killers.

The sun was bright and low. It cast sharp shadows across the road. The idea of Barcode Boulevard just jumped into my mind and it’s been stewing ever since. I had my camera with me today so I took some photos when I stopped for a drink on Heritage Road (no Breakneck Road for this boy). All the way home I thought about this story and wrote a quick and dirty draft of one possible beginning.

I’ve some ideas percolating about how photography and writing are related. When my brew is ready I’ll pour a few cups so we can sip together.

I had some fun today. Besides getting out of the house on a nice November day, I rekindled my Barcode Boulevard idea, took a couple photos with my little Canon digicam and wrote a rough draft for the beginnings of my story.

I’m happy with the photo. I think it turned out nicely in B&W. I used the Gimp BW photo simulation to transform the color shot to B&W. My story beginning? It’s rough and the first go at one way of beginning this story. I need to explore, especially the two unnamed characters. It’s another fun project.

Another project. I have a roll of B&W film hanging up to dry in the bathroom. I’ll scan the negs tonight or tomorrow. Fingers crossed. More shots of my youngest granddaughters, the twins. Hope I get a few decent photos out of the roll. I’ll feature them in one of my posts. I have another roll of film I’ll probably develop tomorrow and I got my slides back the other day. Lots of new photos to play with and share. Stay tuned. But stay off  Barcode Boulevard on the night of the low moon.

Barcode Boulevard, the photo and story are copyright 2009 John McDevitt.

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yin_yang_treeWhen your inner critic nags you to get busy writing too early it ruins the experience. It’s premature — like thinking of sexual foreplay as procrastination.

Jumping in the sack with your text editor too soon ignores your need for rumination and inspiration. Just as the anticipation of foreplay enriches sex, ruminating, playing and teasing ideas can take your writing to exhilarating heights instead of “is that all there is?”

Shoe was always one of my favorite comic strips. In one episode, Skyler sees his uncle, Professor Cosmos Fishawk sitting and gazing out the window. Skyler says: “You’re staring out the window again. A writer should be pounding the keyboard…” The Professor replies: “Wrong. Typists pound keyboards… Writers stare out windows.”

Cosmos was ruminating. You’re allowed. When you give your inspirations and ideas permission to spill out without concern for logic and order your writing will be so much richer. Ruminating isn’t procrastination, it’s necessary.

I was thinking about balance and whole brain writing this morning so I dug out my copy of “Writing on Both Sides of the Brain” by Henriette Anne Klauser. This book was written in 1987, but the message is fresh and the book still in print. I recommend it highly. In Ms. Klauser’s words: “To be whole-brained, you need only quiet down the noisy static side of you and listen to your own imagination.”

Our right-brain, our dragon, always sends us messages but the constant know-it-all interference from our left-brain inner critic drowns out our best ideas all too often. We need the co-operation of both sides of our brains. We all have the inherent skills to be whole-brained creative. Unfortunately, we’ve never been taught how because our western culture emphasizes logical left-brain thinking at the expense of our creative selves.

Giving yourself permission to ruminate is the first step in restoring our true heritage. When I was sitting here this morning, I fired up BrainStorm and just started taking notes and recording fragments as they occurred to me. And yes, I was looking out the window much of the time. The idea of sexual foreplay and rumination kind of popped into my head.

Be sure to have pen and paper or a program like BrainStorm running in the background while you ponder and your thoughts wander. Capture your fleeting thoughts when you can. Worry about how and if you’ll use them later. Have fun — you’re allowed.

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398px-Brechin_Castle_Garden_GatePuppies, children and dragons don’t need permission to romp and play, only the freedom to be themselves. Natural writing is like the sound of little girls giggling in their pillow and blanket house.

Natural writing is a warm bakery filled with tantalizing aromas, baking bread, chocolate cakes and plates piled high with cookies. Natural writing is like the colors of autumn, feathery leaves tickling the air as they float to the ground.

Natural writing finds the prize in a box of Cracker Jacks or the toy in a box of cereal. Natural writing is like a kid in a candy store, face pressed to the glass, coins jingling in his fist, maybe this one or that one — completely caught up in the fun of wondering, of choosing, of anticipation.

The inner critic stands stiffly, pulling on the leash, checking his watch with foot tapping impatience. “This is silly. Are we done yet?”

Natural writing sneaks out the garden gate when the inner critic isn’t looking. Natural writing needs no permissions, no premature judgments — only to be allowed to play and to be left alone for a time.

I had no idea I would write this piece until later. I was clustering (in my sketchbook with one of my favorite fountain pens) about metaphor and writing. Clustering leaves the garden gate swinging wide.

Then I played with a short vignette before booting my computer and firing up BrainStorm. I used a segmented list to expand my play. What’s a segmented list? It’s a flat list with fences between each collection of ideas.

Instead of using an outline hierarchy, I used a couple of fences -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-= to divide my list. Why? Because it’s easy to see and manipulate ideas when you can focus on the whole and play at the boundaries. The only judgment I made while populating my list was which side of the fence to put each idea on.

I’ll call what I did text clustering. Instead of using pen and paper, I typed each fragment or idea as they occurred to me, without judging. I ended up with a list divided between images of natural writing, inner critic impatience and a few short phrases like permissions, allowing, etc.

BrainStorm allows me to quickly arrange and rearrange my thoughts without resorting to the tedious block moves of a typical word processor or text editor. When I was happy with my phrases and ready to begin writing, I split the BrainStorm window, created a new topic called vignette and expanded my thoughts into paragraphs in the new window while using the list for reference.

Then I used BrainStorm’s write to clipboard to copy my vignette to a fresh file in NoteTab, my text editor. I made a few changes, fixed the paragraphing and fleshed out the article.

I held off my inner critic until I was ready for him, then I invited him to help me organize and finish. I had absolutely no notion of writing this article when I began. I simply left the garden gate open and clustered around the ideas of writing and metaphor (and simile). Don’t allow your inner critic to lock the garden gate. Go out and play. You might be astonished at what happens next.

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Make-believe is “Imaginative intellectual play” (WordNet database — Princeton University). Invite your dragon to play, to help rediscover your childhood imagination, and watch your writing come alive.

Emily_birthday_princess

Take a peek into Emily’s imaginative world.
She was a real princess that day. Emily and her friends weren’t simply pretending, they were princesses. Logical? Not for these six year old girls playing at Emily’s princess birthday party. Make-believe and childhood imagination defy logic. These princesses were/are comfortable with their dragons.

To logical beings, dragons seem terrifying. Could this be how the evil image of dragons came about? Because we were/are afraid of our inner thoughts? Logic dislikes the chaos of imagination because it doesn’t understand. Logic slays the dragon. The trouble with logic is that it wants to organize our ideas before they exist, an oxymoron.

Dragons aren’t logical. They aren’t judgmental. Their play is free flowing make-believe, what if and somewhat chaotic. Ideas and impressions come all at once as gestalts when we are relaxed with our dragons.

Stare out the window musing. Lose focus and allow your thoughts to flow freely. When an idea pops into your head simply record it without judging and go back to musing. Imagine waves crashing onto the beach during a storm — a brainstorm.

Walk along the beach collecting all the interesting things that wash up. After the storm is over invite your logical inner critic to make sense of what you’ve discovered.

The notion that we are either left-brained logical or right-brained whimsical is misguided.
We are always both, subject to the ebb and flow of the tides of thought. When we lose our balance we trip and falter.

Logic without ideas sterilizes. Ideas without logic confuses. When you recapture your childhood imagination, when you make-believe with imaginative intellectual play, your writing will come alive. But only when you suspend judgment and allow your ideas free reign in the beginning. You’ll have a rich pool to draw from and organize. Next time, I’ll show you how I use BrainStorm to capture my musings, then order them when it’s time for logic.

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cat dressedThey sit down to write, but they might open a can of cat food first. Complaining about writer’s block is like looking at the cat food dish and complaining that it’s empty. Of course it’s empty — you have to fill it. When you have deadlines and commitments, not writing isn’t an option. You don’t have the luxury of being blocked.

Don’t have a cat? We all have dragons. Dragons and cats have a lot in common. They’re independent, dislike being ordered about and respond in kind when treated with respect. And they like to be fed.

When you think you have nothing to write about, think again. Simply entice your dragon to come out and play. What? You can’t find him? Get your can opener and open a can of dragon food. He (or she) will come running.

Dragons, like cats, are highly sensitive to the smell of a freshly opened can of food. All you need is a can opener. You’re not likely to get at the food inside by staring at the can and wishing it would open. Grab that can opener, open your text editor and just start sniffing around to see what’s inside.

You may not find a scent worth following at first but you will. Keep writing and sniffing. If you can’t think of anything to write, put your hands on your keyboard and write “I can’t think of a thing I want to write about, I’m stuck, just like I was stuck in traffic the other day. That was…”

It makes no difference what you write at first. Just start.
Writer’s block is simply your inner critic getting in your face. Ignore him (or her). When you write freely, not worried about what you’re saying. When you allow the ideas to flow uncensored, your inner critic will grow bored and leave you (and your dragon alone).

You can’t “force” your writing but you can create the conditions that allow ideas to pour out. The door isn’t locked. Quit pushing. Turn the knob gently and the door will open.

Writer’s block is expecting perfection before you even begin. Not likely is it? So what if your first draft is mostly junk that you’ll throw out. You’re interested in finding the gems — and you will — just keep writing whatever comes to mind. When you find a good idea, latch on and see where it leads. You’ll be surprised and delighted.

Writer’s block? Nah. Just keep that can opener handy.

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