Business Musings: Creative Cross-Training
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Every time I complain about being too busy to get all of my work done, I toy with the idea of quitting school. I’m taking classes every spring and fall semester at UNLV. Dean tells me I don’t have to work hard at them because I already have a job, but you know, the ancient training dies hard.
I was raised to be as good a student as I can be. (Sometimes it’s hard; I’m dyslexic and certain subjects are detail focused. I am not great at them.) I put a lot of effort into learning, but I also get a lot out of it.
Still, I hear his point. I watch the other people I’m in school with and I realize that I’m lucky. I’m studying for the reasons I have always studied—to learn something. The middle-aged students around me are trying to get an advanced degree to move careers or advance in the ones they have. The younger students—the ones straight out of high school—are trying to find themselves and figure out what they want to do with their lives.
They all feel tremendous pressure, and the idea of getting even a mediocre grade makes them (the younger ones in particular) believe that they’ve ruined their entire futures.
I am not in that precarious state. I’m doing this for me. I’m finishing the Spanish degree that I couldn’t finish forty years ago. Back then, the University of Wisconsin required language students to travel abroad for an entire semester to immerse themselves in the language. I couldn’t afford to do that, and there were no scholarships available. Besides, I would have had to leave my then-husband which, looking back on it, might not have been a bad thing.
Still, the experience left me functionally illiterate in Spanish which irritated the heck out of me. I tried studying on my own, but it’s not the same. The classes challenge me, as I’ve written before, and taught me several things, particularly about the damaging effect of getting stuck in the words rather than the conversation.
So quitting is not a good idea for me, even though it comes up almost weekly. I really am overscheduled. I love it and I hate it and I want to write more and I want to do more.
Only…I learned a lesson about my own process a long, long time ago. If I’m left to my own devices, if I schedule time to write and do nothing else, I’m creative for a few days, maybe a few weeks, and then I dry up. The words don’t flow easily. I can’t remember what I wanted to write or why I wanted to write it.
I need to be challenged.
The first time I experienced this was in 1985 at the Clarion Writers Workshop. Six weeks long, spent with other writers in an almost hermetically sealed Michigan State University. We were in a closed dorm (not the graduate dorms that most years of Clarion students had) and we rarely saw anyone else. In fact, our walk to class took us through an underground tunnel where there were always the remains of hastily eaten breakfasts, but no sign of people. One of my classmates, Robert J. Howe, labeled that little passage The Marie Celeste and it stuck.
I had thought that six weeks with writers, talking writing and reading, was my idea of heaven. By week three, I was bored out of my mind. Yes, I had a lot of work to do. Yes, I learned a lot. And jeez, I wanted to think of something else, have a conversation about something—anything—else.
I realized then that I needed outside input, and a lot of it.
I had to relearn that lesson a couple times as a young professional. I would take a week or two off of my day job and stay home to write. Which I did. And then, I simply couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t just need the time away. I needed something else to occupy my brain.
School does that for me. I’m studying stuff I wouldn’t normally study. If I’m reading, I’m reading someone else’s reading list. I’m learning things in disciplines I’ve never really explored in depth. I’m stepping outside of my comfort zone all the time.
I’m doing that living in Las Vegas as well. I see entertainment I wouldn’t have given a second thought to in the other places I’ve lived. I explore casinos, and neighborhoods that my younger self might have considered sketchy.
I don’t know if I’ll ever use the input, but it might crop up in ways that I might not recognize. Sometimes I do know what I’m learning and sometimes I wonder where the heck I got that idea.
Over a year ago, I saw an interview with a neurologist, who mentioned that one of the most important things a person can do is cross-train the brain. The article went on to talk with creatives and a different expert mentioned that those who indulged in “creative cross-training” did better on everything, from the happiness and wellness scale to actual creativity.
Of course, I didn’t save the article in my Pocket Reader app. Or if I did, I can’t locate the damn thing. I can’t remember when exactly I read the article, and I know it wasn’t called “Creative Cross Training.” I just Googled the title and found a series of posts on the topic. The most interesting one is the one, of course, that everyone quotes. It’s from Adobe’s 99U site. The article makes this point, that drawing teaches a writer to see, and music teaches a writer to hear.
But I think creative cross-training should be more than just experimenting in other art forms. Maybe other disciplines might be better. I learned a lot when I was teaching myself how to be a runner. I’m learning a lot about the human body as I learn Pilates. (It also helps my back).
Learning another language isn’t just teaching me how to communicate. It’s teaching me how to see the world in an entirely different manner. Some of that will help with my science fiction and fantasy writing, but some of it simply gets me to consider topics and concerns that never usually enter my consciousness.
Not only that, the creative cross-training does what real cross-training does: it gives the primary muscles a rest while activating the secondary muscles. It took me years to realize that I couldn’t run/walk all the time. I have terrible balance (always have) and I needed to work on core strength. Finally, I found Pilates.
I’m really bad at Pilates. There are certain moves this old and many-times-injured body can no longer do (if I could have ever done them). I try, though, and that’s what counts. I have better balance than I had, and strengthening my core muscles has really helped my running form.
I know that cross training is essential. But I get so tied up in the day to day on my writing work that I forget to put in the other stuff. Having an outside schedule can be annoying. I know I’ll lose hours every week traveling to school, sitting in class, and doing my damndest to finish homework that—as Dean says—I really don’t need to excel at.
But I am giving it as much effort as I can, and in hindsight, I’m seeing the payoff.
Much of the time, though, I find myself thinking about Nancy Kress’s award-winning novella (which later became a book series) titled “Beggars in Spain.” We published the novella as a standalone hardcover in the original Pulphouse Publishing’s Axolotl line. The story is about people who have done away with the need to sleep.
That causes other problems, of course.
But I still think…what would happen if I could sleep less and do more? It’s not possible, especially for me with my health. If I cut down on sleep, I manage a day or two before I actually fall asleep while doing other things.
That temptation is there. Think of all I could accomplish with an extra eight hours in my day. Think how crazy I would really be.
Creative cross training has been essential to my process from long before I even had a term for it. I needed to think about something other than writing and publishing and fiction and editing. I needed to focus in a completely different direction, meet people who never think about storytelling for a living, and talk with folks who have different concerns from me.
It keeps my brain fresh, but more importantly, it keeps my writing fresh.
And that makes it all worthwhile.
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“Business Musings: Creative Cross Training,” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / MilanMarkovic.
This is *exactly* why coming to one of your workshops was refreshing and (in its own way) restful after the brain-melt of learning a new role at work. Even with all the homework you gave us, it let one part of my brain rest and recuperate while the other went off and played!
I had a similar experience this year. A friend of mine is a university professor here in Seattle and offered to let me audit some of his classes. It interfered with some of my time commitments but I juggled some things around to make it work. Three times a week I got on the bus and traveled to campus. The first class was an introduction to electronics; more information that many will ever want to know about every electrical component we use in all of our devices. I loved it. I, a 55 year old person, was accepted by the other students and even worked with them in the labs to complete my assignments. It was a great way for me to break out of my shell, still remaining from Covid, and learn about something that always interested me. The second course was on RADAR systems, how they operate, how to build them, and the math behind them. This one was much harder and I fell behind in class due to the advanced math, which I hadn’t used in over 30 years, but still I had a good time and learned much. In the first class, I noticed that students (sophomore students mostly) were really concerned about their grades. They negotiated with the professor over grades, convinced him of modifying the curve and providing many more examples of problems that would be on the test. They fretted over every test. The RADAR class was graduate students, so they were more relaxed and laid back. The difference was interesting to me. I’m sure I will use the knowledges of these classes in my writing and what I observed of the students in future stories. I’ve always been a proponent of reading and watching things that are not of my general interest and find that it sparks new ideas and perspectives on story.
Last year, I started noticing I was bored with learning writing craft. Suddenly I struggled to finish anything I started. I’d spent several years diving into it, especially for several areas I was struggling to understand and enjoyed them and working out how to use what I learned in my writing. But then I plateaued and couldn’t figure out why. Earlier this year, I ran into Becca Syme’s Write Faster-Better and the Clifton Strengths. I took the test, and it poleaxed me.
I was high input, which is collecting information, but all my strengths needed a bit of rebalancing and two turned into border collies if left to their own devices. Input was starved for new information that wasn’t about writing craft. I ended up reading a ton of non-fiction books to start, on whatever topic drew me. I’ve also added Smithsonian Associates webinars. That scratches diverse topics, the last one being Sears kit homes in my area. The two-hour length keeps one of the border collies at bay; I’m afraid a college course is out because the two border collies would both lose interest by the end of two weeks.
I’ve also hit historical sites locally, visited caverns and seen cave-dark, wandered through a farm. When I used to do this, I always framed it from the writing perspective: can I use this in a story? That ended up not being fun and I stopped doing it. Now I’m just following where my interests take me and saying to myself it’s okay if it’s not writing. More recently, I’ve been able to dip back into craft, but in a different way.
So it’s been a big learning experience!
#1 Input here saying Hello to you! 😀
I so get what you’re saying. WBF was a life-changer for me too. I was also able to go further and figure out what kinds of input helped me (more real-life, outdoor experiences, playing with my child) and which absolutely did not (TV, streaming, videos, pretty much anything screen-related).
Like you said, whether or not all this helps directly with the writing doesn’t matter because it keeps me sane and happy. And that makes me a more optimistic and fulfilled person overall and consequently a better writer, a better mother, a better friend and so on, and I can show up in all aspects of my life as the best version of myself.
I’m so grateful to you for this post, Kris. I’m doing the Half Challenge with Dean and it’s revealing to me a lot about myself and my writing habits. One thing I’ve learnt is that I love having a full life. Sure, I moan and complain sometimes about how much there is to do, but I thrive on it. It makes me so happy having a vast range of experiences that a busy day ends up being way more productive in terms of word count than a fairly open day with all the time to write!
I used to give myself a lot of grief for being like this, having bought into a myth that writers do nothing but write all day long, and to even want to do something else is *gasp* sacrilege. So this different perspective coming from you is quite liberating for me too. Outside real-life input, and a vast variety of it, is so crucial to me and my sanity and my writing! Thank you for writing and sharing this post! ?
Sewing and gardening.
They have very different thought processes and both can result in solid, tangible objects.
They’re ideas made solid.
Gardens also have minds of their own and you have to cope with weather, critters, HOAs, soil issues, and time.
This, cosigned x1000. Spanish was the only C I ever received, back in college. Even though I passed a written equivalency exam for my M.A., I had zero listening/speaking skills, and it irked me. At age 38, while undergoing a ludicrous divorce, I bought a one-way ticket to South America and immersed myself in the grammar again. Four months abroad in Spanish in mid-life was a life-changing opportunity. Back in the US, my next girlfriend was from Barcelona, so I lived in a never-ending Spanish class for the next five years and became totally fluent. I’ve traveled throughout LatAm the last ten years and attribute much of my happiness to mid-life fluency. It yields amazing benefits. I’ve even been hired by a company in S America because of my familiarity with the language and culture, even though that wasn’t the point at all. Thanks for the post.
Ahhh Beggars in Spain! As a twenty-something, that book blew me away.
It wasn’t until years later when Hermione’s fabulous time-turner arrived that anything has come so close to capturing my wish for more time.
I love love love sleep, but I would be happy if I could steal another 8 hours a day to finish everything on my list every now and then!
Fanfiction.net has a language option, a length of story and rating option, as well as choosing stories with characters you like. I sometimes pick a super short story in French to see if I can still read it. Pick a fandom and read some Spanish stories in it? (I also got a friend who was on her third year of Spanish a copy of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” in Spanish for Christmas one year). My cable service also has a ton load of Spanish channels. And if you can’t find video in your chosen language on YouTube… There are so many wonderful options to watch cat videos in Spanish, should you choose to do so.
I listen to news podcasts and interviews…sometimes at half speed… 🙂