Kickstart Your Writing Purple

April 2018



▪ Q&A: Gary Rogowski on creativity
▪ Congratulations, Damon!
▪ Writing prompt: April showers
▪ Earth Day markets
▪ Nerdy Words: Freeing ourselves from the lingering tyranny of Latin
▪ Student showcase: “Rules of Behavior” (excerpt), by Ann Sihler
▪ Subscribe to Kickstart for free!
Q&A: Gary Rogowski on creativity
Congratulations, Damon!
Writing prompt: April showers
Earth Day markets
Nerdy Words: Freeing ourselves from the lingering tyranny of Latin
Student showcase: “Rules of Behavior” (excerpt), by Ann Sihler
Subscribe to Kickstart for free!
Gary Rogowski head shot

Gary Rogowski

Q&A: Gary Rogowski on creativity

Joining us for a Q&A this month is Portland furniture designer, teacher, and author Gary Rogowski. Rogowski has written plays, travel essays, and other literary works, but he is best known for his how-to books and articles on woodworking. He owns and runs the Northwest Woodworking Studio, is a frequent contributor to Fine Woodworking, and authored the must-have woodworking book The Complete Illustrated Guide to Joinery. Last year Linden Publishing released his book Handmade: Creative Focus in the Age of Distraction, a combo autobiography and guide to creativity and living an authentic life. Rogowski talked with us about creativity in writing and woodworking.

What do writing and woodworking have in common?
They both require a plan, structure, an idea of purpose, but also of intent. There are lots of books on poetry. Some make you cry, some don’t. What are you after with your writing? Besides how good/miserable it makes you feel doing it.

What effect do you want your book to have on readers, particularly people who aren’t woodworkers?
My goal is to inspire folks to take a chance on themselves. To make the choice to be creative and to take the effort to do so is a bold one in a culture that prefers more selfies, more beer, more videos, more quick results. But we are still entranced by a good story. Creating the work that we were placed here to do is one goal.

Another is to understand that any creative act is fraught with self-doubt, anxiety, missteps, and failures. We are constantly at work with ourselves about what is good and am I good enough and why aren’t I great yet and why is everyone else better than me at this? We then throw up a thousand road blocks to our work. I simply suggest that if we practice forgiveness, allow our mistakes to teach and not humiliate us, we can grow and let our voices shine.

How do you define an authentic life?
An authentic life is one where you don’t have that pain in your side every day from not doing what you know you are here to do. For me that pain expressed itself in anger, drinking, workaholism. It meant doing everything but the creative work that I felt was my purpose for being here. So I was a straight A student in school and unhappy, and I was a perfectionist in my work, which made me unhappy. I kept trying to please everyone but myself.

An authentic life means that you face down your demons and take a chance on yourself and let yourself fail in order to have a chance to succeed. An authentic life then allows you the freedom to discover what it is you have to say. It’s not always pretty in a first look, first design, first draft. It is freeing in the sense that even on a bad f-ing day, you can say to yourself, “I was doing my stuff. I was working at what I love. Even though today it sucked.” Failure to try, failure to take a chance on your talents means that pain in your side can grow and this dissatisfaction can express itself in weird ways. An authentic life means you can face the world and deal with it as honestly as you face yourself.

What do you think people don’t understand about creativity?
People think it’s easy. It’s not. It’s a joy and a burden. It lets you go places that few other people go in imagination or action, and with that comes a feeling of loneliness and anxiety and self-doubt and small triumphs. It is also not something you turn on and off. It is not something you get by wishing for it. Ideas abound, inspiration is everywhere. But taking the time to make an idea work, making the effort to flesh out an idea, polish a thought, to create something of lasting value—that takes effort. Folks don’t consider this commitment to being excellent at something. It is absolutely selfish. It is undeniably elitist. It is all-consuming.

My analogy is in music. Do you want to go hear a kazoo band or skilled players at each instrument of a group? If you want to hear the best, then you want elitists who know their work and practice their craft selfishly. You don’t want to listen to dabblers, exhibitionists, and improvisers except as comic relief.

How does curiosity come into play in writing, particularly when you’re the author and authority and already know the subject matter you’re writing about?
I used to walk down the streets of my hood with my beagle. Jim and I would stroll the same streets over and over again twice a day for 14 years and on almost every walk if my eyes weren’t staring at the inside of my brain, I would see something on the path that blew me away. I had never seen it before or had seen it but never noticed its shape or how it lived in the shade or made a pattern before my eyes.

Curiosity allows us to see the same thing in new ways, in a new light. It allows us to hold an object or idea up to the light and observe it from a new perspective—from the perspective of the light of a new day or that gained from reading a new book.

Do you have perfectionistic tendencies?
Good god. Of course I do. Perfectionism for me was Catholic in both senses of that word. It was how I was brought up: stained with sin and badgered to be perfect. No mistakes. Nothing was ever good enough. But also in the sense that everything I did had to be perfect. It’s soul crushing. It took me years to allow myself the space to do my best work, not perfect work.

I tell my students now, “Don’t do your best piece. It’s too much pressure.” I say to them, “Do your second best piece ever. Don’t kill yourself trying for perfect.” As I write in my book, Yo-Yo ma, the great cellist, doesn’t relax in a concert until he makes his first mistake. Ah, I am human, he must say, and then he can relax and blow us all away with his brilliance.

I still make plenty of mistakes. Some I have to fix. Some I am content to let slide. There is so much work to do. My focus at the bench working or at my writing can get too small and I fuss over things no one else will notice. I have learned—I am still learning—how to let go of some of this need for absolute control.

Is there such a thing as mistakes in writing?
I don’t think so. I think there may be mistakes in choices. Choosing to write one story over another. Or putting off working on one story when another really wants writing. Failures occur when writing. You get a burst of energy and write like crazy for a half hour and think, “this is brilliant.” The next day it is drained of life and banal. It happens. That’s a failure that you can learn from and not a mistake. Anne Lamott in her great book, Bird by Bird, talks about shitty first drafts. You have to have them in order to find the nugget and polish it. But I don’t think of failure as a mistake. Failures give me confidence as I rule out one idea, one attempt, one design after another to find what feels right.

Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, what do you do?
I didn’t get writer’s block. I got “writer’s Berlin wall.” I got writer’s “the Great Wall of China.” I simply stopped. I was never stumped for ideas. I just didn’t write them down and work on them. For months and years I would do nothing but bitch at myself for not writing. Then I’d pick up the writing and again, write two paragraphs and put it all down. I thought inspiration would just hit me. I didn’t realize that it takes effort to be inspired.

Now I don’t get writer’s block because I started so late in my life writing again. I recognize now the value of reading so many others’ work to find ideas and ways to invigorate my own work. The tome The Seven Basic Plots, by Christopher Booker, shows you how we walk over story ground again and again as humans. But story is the key to capturing readers. So what’s your story? Ask yourself that and doors open, at least for me. What is my intent in trying to write this piece about a dog? If I can answer that then I can find the stories to help me tell it.

I think it was in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that Robert Pirsig wrote about a student of his with writer’s block. His advice? Focus on one tiny aspect of a person or event or place and write about that. Not the courthouse—write about one brick of the courthouse on one wall on one side of it. See where it leads your mind.

You’ve said that in woodworking, it can be difficult to manage your emotions when you make a mistake or things don’t go well. Do you have the same trouble with writing?
No, it’s completely different. I get disgusted with myself as a writer because I fuss and rewrite endlessly instead of finishing a piece and letting it sit. But it’s a process and a fairly long one.

At the bench there is tangible physical evidence of work done wrong: a broken piece of wood, a cut made in the wrong place, a bad stain. A misplaced word does not carry the same impact as it doesn’t require the same physical effort. Writing, on the other hand, allows one to fool oneself or work on dead-end ideas until we can one day step back and look around and say, “Oh I was lost. This was a bad idea.”

What key qualities can people cultivate to foster their creativity? How can writers, in particular, nourish themselves in being more creative?
I am not a people person. I prefer the loyal company of dogs. So I force myself out into the world if only to listen to conversations on the street. There is a ton of stuff to see and listen to at a hardware store or cafe. I used to think that writing dialogue for instance was beyond me. Now I can’t stop myself from writing it because I started listening to voices. First my own voice and then making up others. I find that taking on other character voices is a stunning way of waking my mind up. So I write stuff down wherever I go—things I think of, phrases heard, random stuff that happens on the street. It’s a huge source, is the world. So if everyone you meet is a potential character then you have to notice everything about them: how they dress, how they drink, how they deliver their words. And creating and inhabiting characters like this is a blast.

My writing teacher had this exercise where we “what if-ed.” What if character A did this and then B did that? What if I write in a voice that is much younger or older, or male or female? What happens? This lets ideas out, this playing with a “what-if” approach.

What do you mean by “creative focus”? What experiences in your life have taught you the most about creative focus?
We are bombarded by our culture. I remember years ago when television was becoming so ubiquitous in our culture and a favorite topic was how bad advertising was for our brains. Now we don’t even blink an eye at the hundreds of ads assailing us each and every day on our screens. And our content providers have scanned us thoroughly to know what we like and don’t like and what we want to see and they get us. Most of us are trapped and enthralled by our screens. And our ability to focus on a task has been limited and shaped by this bombardment to our senses.

So getting away, being in nature helps me slow down my pace, helps me breathe like a normal human again. Walking helps me think at a pace that suits imagination. Escape the dominant social paradigm of believing that your phone needs to be with you at all times.

What suggestions do you have for writers trying to transition from everyday life—with all its busyness and distractions—to a state of focus?
Find one time in every day to do your work. Make it a habit. Be a zealot. Become a true believer in yourself. Make that special time, whether it’s an hour or two or 15 minutes each day. Let it be so sacred that nothing keeps you from it. And every day you do this, you will build up more evidence that you’re doing the right thing.

What else would you like to share with our readers?
I want to point out to all the writers that being an author is a completely different experience than being a writer. My original title for my book never saw the light of day. This current title was a collaborative effort. It still took great pains to get a title that didn’t sound stupid. And I can say with great pride that my contribution to the title includes the words “in,” “of,” and “age.” All the other words came from someone else.

So authoring is different. Compromise is key. Keep in mind what your goal is, which is to get your work in front of other folks. This means that you have to pick your battles. Fortunately, I didn’t ever have to draw a line in the sand, and the editing process was minimal.

There is also a ton of work to be done once the book comes out in order to market it. Unless your name is Rowling or Winfrey, you will have to make the effort to promote your book in the world. The publisher will stand on the sidelines and cheer for you. The work is up to you.

Congratulations, Damon!

Kickstart student and design writer Damon Johnstun has something to celebrate. In March The Oregonian published an article he wrote on office chairs, based on his interview with Jeannette Altherr, co-founder of the Barcelona-based design firm Lievore Altherr.

Johnstun met up with Altherr last year in Milan, at Salone del Mobile, the world’s most prestigious furniture fair—just the place a design writer should be. In fact, it is where Damon is right now, meeting people and gathering material for new articles.

To learn more about Altherr and her quietly elegant work, check out Damon’s article.

Writing Prompt

Writing prompt: April showers

Write about rain.

Earth Day markets

In honor of Earth Day (coming up this Sunday—don’t tell me you forgot!), we are highlighting two markets that focus on the natural world.

The online journal Turtle Island Quarterly publishes poetry that deepens people’s connections to the natural world, plus personal essays and other nonfiction on wilderness, creativity, culture, North American legends, native culture, environment, health, natural living, gardening, and community. The next submission period is April 22 (Earth Day) through June 21 (summer solstice).

Water is the theme of the next issue of the online journal In Layman’s Terms, which is dedicated to encouraging the average person’s appreciation of science, technology, and the natural world. The journal accepts poetry, creative nonfiction, and visual art. There’s no fee to submit, but tips are welcome. Deadline is August 5.

Nerdy Words

Free yourself from the lingering tyranny of Latin

Consider the following:

1. “I don’t know where I got that from.”
2. “Its mission? To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
1. “I don’t know where I got that from.”
2. “Its mission? To boldly go where no man has gone before.”

These words sound completely normal. But are they correctly written English?

According to expert editors through the ages, the answer is no. Number 1 is an example of ending a sentence with a preposition, while in Number 2, the Star Trek screen writer splits an infinitive. (Splitting an infinitive means to put an adverb [“boldly”] between the two words of an infinitive [“to” and “go”].)

Surely you have heard that writers should avoid splitting infinitives and ending sentences with a preposition. The reason? Because early English-language writers, editors, and stylists based their understanding of good grammar on the rules of Latin, a language that, for centuries, was esteemed by educated English speakers.

In English, infinitives are two words: “to come,” “to see,” “to conquer.” But in Latin and many other languages, infinitives are just one word—veni (to come), videre (to see), vincere (to conquer). So in Latin it simply is not possible to stick an infinitive in the middle of the infinitive. Early grammarians extrapolated this principle to English and declared that it was wrong to use split infinitives. The same is true of ending a sentence with a preposition. Because it was not done in Latin, it was considered bad form in English.

There is no need to knock Latin, the source of many English words. But there also is no reason that the rules of a dead language have to govern how we write English today, especially given that it is the nature of language to change. When we speak in the 21st century, many of us split infinitives and end sentences with a preposition all over the place (including, in my case, in an off-color joke I’d be happy to tell you if we ever meet in person). And in recent decades, editors and style guides have become more accepting of split infinitives and sentences that end with a preposition, even in formal publications.

So Latin be damned. In most cases we writers now are free to boldly split our infinitives and disregard bad editorial advice, wherever it comes from.

Student Showcase

“Rules of Behavior” (excerpt) by Ann Sihler

Ann Sihler has been writing essays and poetry on and off for 20 years. Being a Kickstart student has helped her write more consistently and try out different forms and styles. Last year she wrote a series of poems on different psychological states. The excerpt below comes from a poem about how living a life of routine can be comforting, yet stifling. You can read more of her work at

In an inspired moment,
set a recently completed checklist
in a place of honor.
Celebrate by practicing
scales on your guitar.
Afterwards, stay indoors,
where you can
set the thermostat …

Whatever you do as you
lie there in the dark,
do NOT notice the
soft caresses of evening breeze.
They might steal you away, connect you,
so that you end up marveling
at the iridescence of dragonflies,
join with wolves howling in the wilderness,
sparkle from poetry, or play,
maybe even stand on tiptoe
at the rim of a desert canyon,
leaning into a dizzying expanse
where you could reach out and
touch another, be touched in return,
and feel joy and the pain of brokenness
that makes all of us human,
and whole. Even you.

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Thanks for reading Kickstart, which is a publication of Nancy Woods—author and writing coach.

If you have any comments about the newsletter, feel free to email them to Nancy or her newsletter sidekick (aka editor) Ann Sihler.

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