Thoughtful Commentary

It’s in short supply. Social media is full of opinions, but a lot of it seems to be engaged in bashing others’ existing ones.

It can make me reluctant to express mine. I have been afraid of publishing sometimes because I could be wrong. It has stopped me from writing.

But, like anything you choose to present to the world, vulnerability goes with the territory. Artists of every kind trade their feelings for exposure of their work. Not knowing if you’ll be lauded or excoriated is frightening.

Perhaps those are our choices: stay silent and safe, or publish and expose ourselves. Staying safe, however, doesn’t necessarily help the work. What we miss by staying safe is the possibility of more easily shaping, honing, and sharpening our work. If our work is only ever for ourselves, I suppose that’s fine. But if we want to say something, if we want to make others feel something, it’s much harder.

Doing everything in solitary feels like I’m navigating a city blindfolded. We need to show our work. Public opinion isn’t always valuable, but enough is that it can allow us to steer a truer course, tack a different course, or pick another star to follow.

Creation is always a balance between how we feel about it and how others receive it. Maybe it will help to focus on that, the balance, rather than the fear. To do otherwise gets nothing done, and keeps us from growing.

It’s okay to be wrong. Say things—with words or brushes or cameras. Say more tomorrow.

When It Goes Wrong

It’ll happen. Despair and work from the depths of your being go hand-in-hand. From time-to-time. What can you do?

The stark option is to quit, stop working. Do something else with your free time. It’s an easier way, at least at first. The itch will be there at the back of your consciousness unless you channel it into another pursuit of making things.

The obvious answer someone with a blog writing about creation and art will say is that you have to keep working. It’s obvious because the idea surrounds us, culturally. I’m a big fan of “JUST DO IT™” as it applies to life in general, don’t get me wrong. But try something else.


Not forever. Just for now. Look at everything you’ve done, and everything you want to do outside your routine. Breathe deeply, steadily. Try to imagine you aren’t attached to any outcome. Remember that you’re just doing the work and the process is your discipline. Discipline has its own benefits, creation has its own benefits, regardless of how bad it is, or how wonderful it is.

Then start working again. Just do it.

The Wars of Stars

There’s something magnetic about a richly detailed universe, full of adventure and magic. And history. After 40 years, George Lucas’s original gift to geekdom has no end of stories, art, technical specs, and lore attached, both in- and out-of-canon. So, yeah, no shit—why point out the obvious?

Maybe to say you never know how your ideas are going to be received, and sometimes they take over the zeitgeist. That is a tantalizing possibility, but it’s also a pretty long shot. I’m thinking past that, however.

There’s nothing obvious about the bare idea. It’s even silly in many respects: an advanced technological society of humans (and non-) “a long time ago,” and “far, far away” doesn’t make much sense, biologically, without much hand-waving. Never mind that the title has only the vaguest oblique connection to the story. That some people have figured out a way to have magic powers is a stretch further. But it wasn’t just the idea that mattered. It isn’t now your ideas that matter. Ideas are a dime a dozen, or cheaper than that. What makes possible the capturing of an audience’s imagination is the execution, the crafting, the details. It’s the seed versus the spreading tree.

Unless your ideas take over your consciousness, fill up your world view, and become another universe, they don’t even have the chance.

It doesn’t have to be big, some seeds are a dandelion, and some are baobabs. It can be a glimpse or an epic. Either way, plant that thing and cultivate.

Quick Work

Working to deadlines is often necessary. Time is the one luxury we can’t invoke more of with greater resources, it just gets reallocated.

But, as in every other aspect of creating that requires shoving other things and obligations aside in order to do the work, even a short time is better than none. Here’s where the habit comes in: it takes over when stress and lack of motivation are high.

And, sometimes, we can only produce a small amount of something. Some times are filled with despair and uncertainty. We can only trust that these are transitory. Everything passes by. What might make a difference is that it’s rare something has to be finished in one day. Mostly, work is done in stages, building on things that were done on previous days.

We trust that the pile we’re throwing today’s work upon is going to look better, eventually. It isn’t about today, nor tomorrow. And that holds true even during times we feel good about the shovelful we’ve made in any one day. When there’s flow and inspiration and a sense of insight, it’s still only a passing day’s work to throw on the heap, and it’s little different whether it’s hours’ worth or a few minutes. You won’t be able to tell when you got a little done or a lot, it’s still one big, lumpy pile of work. Consistency is always better. And the rest is editing.

Rejecting the Coast, Pt. 3: Red

She was still sitting on the porch of the house when the day ended. She wondered if it had been the best way, leaving everyone and just about everything she’d known for the last eleven years behind to follow a new path and make this work. Wondering—that was another method of avoiding things she had to do, in the end.

There was room for Hakim, room for his guitar. She missed him already. But she needed to claim the house for herself, first. Get some life worked into its corners before she could share it. She wanted to understand herself again so she could write in her most open way. This feeling of being lost, when her goal had been the opposite, was typical. Her fears were calmed first, as they always were, by questioning what she was doing, and only later by working.

Maybe there are always questions, she thought. Always us telling ourselves we’re doing it wrong, the timing isn’t good, we should hold on a bit longer. Wait, wait, wait.

The sunset, filtered through the trees, was turning everything a light crimson. For Lynn, it wasn’t ominous or anything. It felt like a signal, an alert. She left the quilt on the porch and went to find her laptop. It felt like the moment to finally get on with things. She did.

Running Out of Ideas

Just, no. There’s no shortage of ideas, and they aren’t what matters. For instance, let’s riff:

Tinnekas is a young female spider, learning her place in the world and growing frustrated with spider society. It’s way too isolated, focused on solitary living, only rarely coming together for summits and seasonal ceremonies. She wishes they worked together more, like the bees who sometimes stumble through their webs, or the crows in the trees nearby who shout their bickerings and camaraderie at each other in great black flocks. She has one friend, another girl spider, and they dream of setting up a communal network in a long stand of junipers on the nearby hill, impossibly far but taunting with promise.

They’re always there, but what matters isn’t some novel concept or grand epic plan, it’s the execution. Anyone can have ideas. We hardly ever do the ponderous ditch-digging of filling the canvas and getting words down to the end of page after blank page.

The idea is a path from L.A. to San Diego. The work is a billion heated, raked, steamrolled rocks carefully aligned day after day in the sun.

Working Hard or Intently Living?

I’m reading Brian Jay Jones’s Jim Henson biography. A lot has been said about Jim’s ambitions, his genius, and his work ethic. It’s true, he worked a lot. And, as he said in at least one interview, what he liked was to work. Lots. But he (are you ready for the cliché?) played hard and even familied hard. He did everything with the same intensity. He took regular vacations, brought along Jane and the kids, and packed them with everything he wanted to see and do, including just lounging around soaking up another country’s essence.

The lesson I’m starting to see take shape is that Jim lived with intention. He was ready to change his plan and even his vision if something else seemed stronger and more true. It’s less important to champion hard work in everything, and more so to live intentionally, work steadily, be forthright. Putting things into the world is its own reward, maybe.

A Simplified Customer Service Methodology

or, How I Came to Write a Pseudo-Proto White Paper

As my job in retail is my primary financial support, I’ve been thinking about the issue of customer service for a few years as I observe people in their activities while in my store. It’s easy to devolve into an adversarial mindset. After several years with many of the same cow-orkers (I’ve been a longtime admirer of Cory Doctorow’s favored re-spelling) and even several of the same managers, camaraderie and affection are a natural outgrowth. Customers can be difficult. That’s not to say that most, or even many, are “problem” patrons, but, if only due to a familiar setting, employees can tend to view their workplace as, well, theirs. Up to a third of our lives (sometimes more) is spent there. Customers can become invaders, encroachers, intruders. Overcoming the adversarial tendency and anticipating the difficult customer is a prime goal of customer service. This is all hyperbole to better outline the issue.

I’m not interested in pursuing a career in customer relations, so I wanted to be succinct. How could I quickly translate my simple, surface observations into an easily-digestible package? In these situations, where my ambition is bigger than any underlying motivation, acronyms have proved eminently useful.

The following is not a true white paper, it’s far too succinct and sourceless. It has only my personal observations to back it up. But, hey, just for the record, here it is.

A Method for Simple On-Site Problem Solving 

by Marcus Harwell

The basic level of customer service is the patron’s impression of their visit. Customers, as a group, regularly and continually have questions and problems which need to be solved. Successful resolution of those queries (and a positive experience) can often be achieved in a brief interaction. In order to maximize customer satisfaction and experience, an employee using the following method may improve results when it is followed as a first and ongoing procedure. Even when the problem is unsolvable, a customer may still leave the store with a positive experience due to the crew’s direct responses. In a very simplified way, this fundamental level can be addressed with a simple, sequential system, namely the three Es:

  • Engagement
  • Empathy
  • Enthusiasm


1. Engagement 

Awareness and Involvement 

This is the first level of interaction with any patron. Being directly involved with the customer asking a question is key to quickly solving problems. Actively listening to a customer’s problem involves both listening and showing understanding. Engaging allows customers to identify with crew and reduces anxiety. So:

  • Be aware of the customers around you
  • Be ready to actively listen to customers when they ask a question
  • Personal body language should reflect these attitudes


2. Empathy 

Identification With the Customer 

One of the quickest ways to create a negative customer experience is to appear unconcerned. Taking on the question or problem as one’s own is a way of connecting with the customer. The Walt Disney Company, for example, conceptualizes their customers as guests for this reason: it allows them to more easily identify with them. Additionally, empathy can create urgency and resolve in the crew. The customer should never feel belittled or burdensome for their question. Their problem is important in the moment. So:

  • Accept the problem as your own
  • Strive to solve the question because of its importance, rather than to get the customer out of the way


3. Enthusiasm
Positive Response and Assertion
Eagerness to resolve an issue can promote and sustain favorable customer relations. Regardless of outcome, affirming that a problem is solvable, or that one can answer a question, can keep customers on the crew’s side. The reason enthusiasm functions best as the final step is that if the customer is engaged and connected, even a response in the negative can result in an overall gratifying experience. This effect can carry forward to expectations of similar experiences in the future. So:

  • Affirmatively respond that a question is answerable
  • Assure customers you will do what you can to answer their question or solve their problem
  • “I’m not sure, but I’ll find out for you” is a valid, positive response, regardless of a disappointing answer

The importance of this sequence lies in the end result. Even in cases of negative or “No” answers, if the first two principles are followed, the customer is still engaged and empathized with, and therefore more likely to leave their encounter with a positive experience and a feeling that the establishment values their business.
This formula should by no means be seen as the be-all, end-all of customer service. Difficult or hostile patrons require trained management intervention. It’s merely a simplified starting point to quickly get employees involved, and from which to expand to more subtle and complicated issues.