I admit to wasting hours online and in bookstores, camera shops, art supply stores and so on seeking the perfect tools to make me more productive as a maker of things. But really, I’m shopping for toys. It’s a form of procrastination that most creative types and dilettantes will understand. Kind of like writing a blog post when you should be working on a book proposal, which is what I’m doing at this very moment.

Procrastination is a natural part of the creative process and may even be a positive force. But the internet can quickly turn procrastination into a slippery slope on which your creative goals slide into lost hours, weeks and maybe even years when you do the math. I’m a sucker for blog posts on procrastination, though the irony’s in that is not lost on me. I hope I’m not adding to that phenomenon with this little missive.

In any case, here are a few things I’ve stumbled across in the past year that have made my creative process a little better.

Muji pens and notebooks

Notebooks are the best tools for dilettantes. Most ideas start or at least gestate in notebooks as sketches, notes and storyboards before finding their way into print, on screen or on canvas. Sometimes those notebook pages become works of art in and of themselves, as happened with my friend Santiago’s latest art show.

Darwin’s revolutionary ideas began in his leather bound journals. The journal labeled ‘A’ was for his musings on geology. ‘B’ spawned his theories on evolution over the span of decades, turning the scientific world on its head.

I spend hours when I travel checking out art supply stores, stationary shops and bookbinders. I’ve purchased more journals than I can fill in a lifetime. They’re stacked inert on my shelves. I’ve also purchased hundreds of cheap and expensive pens searching for just the right amount of friction on the page and ink that creates clean lines without bleeding through.

And then while we were in Japan last November, I found an ideal combination while exploring the multiple stories of the flagship Muji store in Tokyo with my daughter. Fortunately, you can easily find them online, too, now that Muji stores are becoming ubiquitous.

Their notebooks are simple, cheap, clean and have decent paper quality. They come in lots of sizes and options. I like the spiral bindings because it lays flat to get the cover out of the way, which is especially helpful for sketching.

Their Moma Muji pens that hit the sweet spot for me and come in 6-packs. They are likewise cheap, but they’re extremely durable, their ink don’t bleed and has strong lines. The spring clips are also solid. I can clip them to notebooks or my cap or pocket and it helps me keep from the pen gremlin that seems to swipe all of my favorites when I’m not looking.

Scrivener

I’ve heard about this software for years but I’ve always been reluctant to jump in. After all, a word processor is just a word processor, right? Why try to get fancy? Good old awkward and clunky Word has always been acceptable enough, along with Trello as a complementary outlining tool that based on an index card metaphor. It got me through a lot of drafts of scripts and novels over the years.

But I finally decided to give Scrivener a try. It’s outline structure allows you to break chapters into components and easily rearrange them. Its screenwriting and formatting features are top notch. It has a full-screen composition mode that gets rid of distractions, and it’s handy for organizing research, notes, comments, footnotes and all sorts of ancillary materials. It has some index card outlining features built in as well.

Writer-friends have been telling me about it for years, but I thought it sounded gimmicky and too good to be true. So it wasn’t until I interviewed Pulitzer winner Anthony Doerr and happened to peek over his shoulder at his monitor to see him using it that I was won over. I’ve been using it for six months and have been quite pleased with the results. No Pulitzers so far, though.

Temi

When it comes to nonfiction, I started off as a hardcore recorder/transcriber. I recorded each of the interviews and transcribed them myself in brutal, painstaking accuracy. It took endless hours of starting and stopping. I told myself this was the best way to internalize and retain the words of my interview subjects to build the narratives in my head.

But now that I’ve launched a nonfiction book-length manuscript and am scheduling dozens of interviews, I’m realizing this just isn’t feasible to continue working the old way. There aren’t enough hours in the day.

So I started experimenting with transcription services. Since I’m not rich, I can’t afford a secretary or a transcriptions done by actual humans, my options were limited to AI solutions. And Temi was the best of the services that I tried. It’s the most accurate and has a nice online interface allowing you to easily jump to specific points in an audio interview by highlighting the text so you can confirm its accuracy, because those robots do make plenty of mistakes. The system archives files nicely and handles accents well. The key is a clean recording, but it cab even handle an iPhone recording well enough if there’s no background noise.

Plus it’s cheap. About $6/hour.

My process has evolved with Temi. I still review entire interview recordings after their finished, but instead of slowly transcribing the whole thing, I just write down the “money quotes” that I’m most likely to use, plus maybe some context. Then I transcribe with Temi, output the full transcript and add my own notes to the end of the document. The process has already saved me hours and kept me focused on forward progress instead of constant diversions into transcription, which can be a form of procrastination in and of itself.

7 Artisans Lens 25mm lens

Now we get to the fun stuff. Any filmmaker knows that shopping for gear and reading about specs and the latest cameras and lenses and other toys is the best way to avoid actually making something. If you convert those hours spent reading reviews and comparing prices to actually shooting something with the camera you have, you’d be a much more productive filmmaker.

But that being said, while gear is often a crutch, having a new toy can also give you a creative boost.

I came across this lens while looking for something to add to my minimal film kit. I wanted something tiny, lightweight that I could bring on any trip, slipping both the camera and lens into a jacket pocket. This is a great little portrait lens that is perfect for most interviews. It’s not brilliant, just adequate, but it’s cheap and tiny and a good complement to an inexpensive zoom lens when you need shallow depth of field.

I’ve often avoided bringing a camera while traveling just from sheer exhaustion after spending most of my time on paying video projects. I just don’t feel like toting a camera along after hours of hauling bags, lights, batteries, lenses and gear around the planet. But After buying this lens and creating a minimal kit that fits into one small bag (or even a scaled down kit that fits into a pocket), I’ve found myself bringing my old GH4 on more personal and shooting video just for fun. And the result is some memories I’m glad I captured.

Rode Wireless Go

When this Road Go wireless lav mic came out, I thought it might be a perfect addition to my minimal film kit. It’s a fraction of the size of my trusty old Sennheisers. I bought one and wasn’t disappointed. It works perfectly for interviews where you have a direct line of sight and are within 25 feet of the subject. It’s not flawless, but no wireless setup is, but it’s no more buggy than any of the other systems I’ve used.

This isn’t just a filmmaking tool. I use it to record interviews for writing projects. I clip the mic on the subject and plug the receiver into my smartphone and record with my audio note app. You don’t even need a corded lavalier mic, because the transmitter has a handy built-in mic.

“We are the tools of our tools.”

Henry David Thoreau

It’s a slippery slope, buying stuff to help you solve creative problems. There are no silver bullets. Nothing obviates the fact that making cool stuff requires hours of effort and dedication. There are no shortcuts. And, as Thoreau said, “we are the tools of our tools.” At some point our creativity might start to fuel our consumer habit, accomplishing the opposite of what we’d intended. I’m guilty as charged.

But none of these items or services is too expensive, and if buying a new toy or notebook helps you finish—or even start—a new creative project, then it’s money well spent.

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