2x4: The Interview Series

(Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first 2×4 interview here on Stepcase Lifehack. 2×4 is one series that examines two topics — creativity and productivity — by asking those who make things on the web the same four questions on both subjects. This regular series of interviews began on Michael Schechter’s site as a way to better understand how those who create for the web approach their work. Participants to date have included Eddie Smith from Practically Efficient, Gini Dietrich from Spin Sucks, writer Yuvi Zalkow, Social Media blogger Danny Brown, Lifehack.org editor Mike Vardy and more. Going forward, Michael will be offering up regular 2×4 posts from an array of developers, designers, writers and artists from around the web. To learn more about the series or to read the previous interviews, check out the archives.)

You can find just about anything on the internet. No matter what you’re interested in, chances are there’s someone out there telling you how you can do it better. What’s rare is someone who tells it to you straight, who says things you probably don’t want to hear, who makes you question things you’ve always assumed to be true. No matter what you’re looking to do, you need one of these people in your life. If you’re looking to write, you need Randy Murray.

Randy is a writing machine. In fact, this very interview came back the same day that I sent it (after an already impressive day of writing). He splits his time between several interests including his corporate writing, his books, a well-liked personal blog, his recently launched book publishing venture and his love of playwriting. In other words, the man has a passion for words and the way we use them.

I’ve only recently started to get to know him and could easily go on as to why you need to start following his work, but I’ll spare you and let Randy’s words do the talking. Without further ado, here’s a look at one of my favorite writers about writing, Randy Murray:

Creativity

Have you always considered yourself a creative person?

Yes. But it wasn’t always about writing. Some of my earliest memories are of singing. I’ve always had a strong, room-filling voice. I remember singing “She’ll Be Coming Around The Mountain” at a school assembly, probably in the kindergarten or first grade and being surprised at how astonished everyone was. Singing and music came naturally and performing followed. I was also a voracious reader and dreamed of a life filled with books, maybe even as a writer.

In high school I really blossomed as a performer, especially singing and acting. I even traveled with a Christian music group in the summers, not because of the religious aspects, but because I loved performing.

In college I started off studying biology and chemistry with the intention of becoming a doctor, but found myself spending all of my time in the theatre. So I switched programs and followed my heart. That lead to graduate studies, initially in directing, but morphing into playwrighting. I wrote some plays, one really decent one, and earned my MFA.

But earning a living as a playwright is somewhere between difficult and outright impossible. So I used my acting (auditioning) skills and landed myself a job as a technical writer and trainer at Bell Labs and spent the next 25 years in various roles in high tech, from writing thousands of pages of manuals, to running marketing, and eventually, as a Vice President of Operations. But the further away I got from writing, from creating, the less I enjoyed it.

For the last two years I’ve done nothing but write. I’ve got a play in production, I’ve published one book with a 2nd on the way, and I’ve created a successful business writing practice. It’s the creative that drives me and I can only really be happy when I’m in the middle of writing, creating, or building.

What mediums and inspirations do you gravitate toward to realize your creative goals?

I write every day, sometimes just for pay, sometimes for my web site, First Today, Then Tomorrow, and sometimes on creative projects. Plays, the theatre, is where I believe my true, core creative spirit lies, but I’m tempted to write both short fiction and novels.

If you had to point to one thing, what specific posts or creations are you most proud of and why?

My play, “Grimaldi: King Of the Clowns”. It’s almost like I didn’t create it. It was thrilling to see it performed in Texas earlier this year and I’m looking forward to going to Scotland to see a new version I’ve written performed (it’s a short, one act version designed for street performance).

And I’m digging writing and publishing on First Today, Then Tomorrow. One of the favorite pieces I’ve done there are “Look Up From Your Screen” and “Things You Cannot Convey To A Young Writer (Or Any Other Calling)”.

Any suggestions for those who feel they may not be creative enough to unlock their inner artist?

Get to work. If you love something, want to become an artist, go and hook up with those who are already doing it. Study, get training, do it. Suck a lot, but get better.

I have a friend that tell me “Every writer has a lot of bad writing they have to get through to get to the good stuff.” I strongly believe that applies to all of the creative arts. You have to work at it.

My oldest daughter is a jazz musician and my youngest is a visual artist. I’ve seen both spend literally thousands of hours practicing, experimenting, and learning. For years I hauled my daughter’s string base to lessons, listened to her play, badly, but slowly get better. And I’ve hung a lot of ugly pictures on the walls. Each of my girls started with a core drive and talent, but the artist was unleashed in them, as it was in me, through the work.

Productivity

Can you describe your current personal and professional responsibilities?

I’m an independent business writer. I work with clients, typically through marketing agencies, and write all forms of business materials, mainly marketing, web sites, books, white papers, and presentations. Over the last 2 years I’ve worked with businesses of all sizes, including the biggest telecom, retail, and software companies.

So basically, I write. I also consult, do speaking and training, and occasionally manage projects.

I’ve also started a small publishing company, First Today Press LLC. This last year we published two books, my own Writing Assignments and Patrick Rhone’s Keeping It Straight. This next year we’ll publish More Writing Assignments, Patrick Rhone’s Enough, and books from at least four other authors. I’m very excited about this and I’m hopeful it can bloom into a stand-alone business.

How do you go about balancing the personal, professional and digital?

It use to be more difficult, but it’s much easier now that I’m working on my own and a bit more, um, mature (older). I do client work no more than 4-5 hours a day, unless I’m under deadline pressure. The remainder of the working day is for my own projects, keeping connected digitally, and running about. I keep my weekends and evenings free for time with my wife, and when my girls are around, I take off all the time I like. It’s sweet.

I understand my situation is ideal. I make a good living, my wife works a regular job that had excellent benefits, and we’ve saved and invested wisely. Not everyone can do that. But if you can do it, even if it takes you twenty-five years like it took me, find a way to make it happen. I’m having the time of my life.

What tools and techniques do you find yourself counting on to get through your workload?

Solitude and quiet are my main tools. I can write with anything. I find I write best early in the day, at my desk, alone in my office, writing on my iMac. I am, and always have been, a complete Apple fanatic, although I can easily handle PCs, Linux, and Unix systems. I’m never more than a few feet from an iOS device, including my ever-present iPhone 4 and my 1st gen iPad. And I always have at least my Fischer Space Pen and a 3×5 card in my pocket, if not a full notebook or journal.

I am a practitioner of Getting Things Done, but I’m not a fanatic about it. I also use the strategic planning and management practice called Structural Tension to quickly build goals and plans and execute them.

What is the best starting point for the unproductive amongst us who are looking to get more organized?

Clear yourself a little space. That’s the best way to start any project.

Other than that, ask yourself what you really want. If you want to be entertained, that’s what you’ll be. But if you want to do something, prepared to be bored, to work hard, to become frustrated, and to make a mess.

I hear people say, “I want to write, but I just end up playing games all night.” Maybe that’s what you really want. If so, cut yourself some slack and play. But if you want to write, to do anything creative, put the games and distractions away. If you can be tempted away that easily, you don’t want it enough to actually do it.

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