Mindset, Motivation, and Tchotchkes

Writer’s block.

I had writer’s block.

I’d sat down, opened a blank page, and stared at the screen. I’d realized, on short notice, that I had a Kill Zone post due the next morning and it was four in the afternoon. I knew I had limited time to do a decent job as I skipped through my Kill Zone idea list.

Storytelling in Totem Poles   Nope, too long.  The Pareto Principle for Writers   Same. Uh-uh.  Multi-Tasking vs Mono-Tasking   Can’t do it justice.  The Psychology of Neckties for Homicide Investigators.   Not today.  Neurodivergent Authors   Phhh…  Sturgeon’s Law of 90%   Not possible.  Do You Read Your Reviews?   Naw.  Effective Book Covers with Elle J. Rossi   Geeze, I haven’t even started Elle’s questionnaire.

I sat with the blank page open, leaned back, and looked around my writing room for alternative ideas. My space is full of sayings for stimulus as well as tchotchkes for mindset and motivation. I’m a big believer in the muse, and my muse (since rehab) shows up sober, dressed, and ready to help when required.

Not this afternoon.

I got up and searched for a topic I could bang out fast and still provide value to whomever might so read. Nothing came. Yet I knew it was out there—not far out there—actually very close by.

I’m a nostalgist… if there is such a word. I have a nostalgic yearn for things old and bygone. Like the 1920s, for instance. Part of my studio is set up like a 1920s private detective office. (See the pic)

It’s got authentic props or tchotchkes like a rotary phone, an Underwood No. 5 typewriter in perfect working condition, a suspended metal warehouse lamp with a brown Edison bulb, a blown-glass ashtray and a fired-clay, Sears Roebuck coffee cup dated 1924, a corkboard pinned with relevant stuff, and a framed photo of some floozie who’s my idea of the perfect femme fatale.

Above and to the left are other motivational tchotchkes to set the mindset. A 1920s Electrohome tube radio that sort of works. (I can only dial a Vancouver traffic station on it, and I promise you the zoo-on-wheels in this place is not like a calm and orderly ‘20s road.) A bunch of flash cameras. Leather-cased binoculars. A violin case containing a Thompson .45 machine gun, or at least a reasonable facsimile. A prized, original silkscreen Maltese Falcon movie poster. And vintage neckties. I swear I have 500 ties, and there’s a profound psychological secret for that which I’ll reveal to you in some future piece.

I sat at my 2020s workstation and stared at the screen. Nothing was on it. I looked to my left at three framed affirmations I read every morning. One is deeply personal, and it reflects why I do this stuff. Words like financial, sense of purpose, sense of accomplishment, recognition, learning, opportunity, and legacy—leaving something behind when I’m gone.

The second affirmation is a quote on commitment by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe that’s supposed to bust through the ice of writer’s block like a massive polar bear snatching a fat little seal. It mentions Providence moving when one commits. But this afternoon, it appeared Providence was working at St. Elsewhere.

My third framed factoid is The Muse from Stephen King in On Writing. I won’t bore you with the entire thing ‘cause most of you writers know it by heart. I re-read it for the second time this day and came to the guy with the cigar and the little wings has a bag of magic part.

“Come on, buddy. Open the bag, man.” I said it out loud. “Help me out, O Twisted One.”

And then it happened. Out of nowhere, my muse said, “Just write about what you’re seeing around you and thinking in the moment. Experiencing. Call it Mindset, Motivation, and Tchotchkes or something like that.”

So, this post appeared, and it took me under an hour.

I’m a big believer in mindset, motivation, and tchotchkes. I think my muse pulled something of value from the magic bag and got its point across this afternoon, but I’d like to leave you with something from hardboiled & noir crime writer, Megan Abbott. She said this in a CrimeReads Shop Talk interview:

“Tchotchkes are stuff I look at to stimulate my imagination. When I look at all the tchotchkes above and around my desk—it’s weird. Writing is weird. You have to trust that you’re going to create this mental path so that readers can tunnel into your brain and experience this thing. So, for me, that’s really weird on its own. Deep down, though, I know I need discipline, mindset, and motivation in order to produce. Tchotchkes help me do that.”

Kill Zoners—Does this ring true to you? Do you have certain props or tchotchkes to help stimulate your imagination? Please share how you get into the right mindset and get motivated.

BTW, tchotchke is pronounced ‘chach-kee”. Sort of how a New England crime writer  😉  would say “church key”.

48 thoughts on “Mindset, Motivation, and Tchotchkes

  1. I currently have WB, usually a sign I’m writing the wrong thing. I’ve scratched away at a paper on Depersonalization/Derealization (“DPDR”) for many months, and I’ve decided I should instead be writing a note to an expert in the field (a Nobel prize winner), asking for some help. Or maybe a blurb for the back cover of my book.

    But tchotchkes. What have I got here that could be called a tchotchke?
    ❦ A 25X magnifier inscribed “USC Astronomy.” It belonged to my friend, Professor Gibson Reaves, my former boss at the USC Astronomy Department, years ago.
    ❦ A memory stick with a novel by Stuart, a guy from acting class. He died ~3 years ago and I have yet to open the file, fearing equally the likelihood that his novel sucks like a fruit bat on a mango OR that it is excellent, and must be published with my help. The book is titled: “I Found My Kill on Blueberry Hill.”
    ❦ A Juki daisy wheel printer, with no serial number, anywhere.
    ❦ A crude chess set carved by a prison inmate. Faces, possibly of guards or prisoners, have been drawn on the major pieces. It’s allegedly haunted, according to the guy who sold it to me, a corrections officer at Fresno prison.
    ❦ Slim Gaillard’s CD, “Vout Orenee Man.” I got this at a Stealing Santa party, 2017.
    ❦ An ashtray from the Buenas Noches Motel in George West, Texas. I stole it the night that Obie, a co-worker, was fatally injured in the room next to mine. A spider bit him that night, and he died about a year afterward. I’ve not stayed there, since.
    ❦ A cubic padauk puzzle box. I haven’t been able to solve it, so I don’t know what makes it rattle. Could be a gold coin or a medal or a subway token. Or a penny.

      • Thank you, sir. KillZoneBlog is a place where interesting people gather. That definitely includes you, as well–a superb resume for the genre.
        I’ve been to Victoria, as i probably have mentioned previously. It would be nice if we could have a “KillZone Konventione” some day. Perhaps via Zoom . . . ⸮¿

  2. Gary, I love you office. Very noir-y.

    I don’t have a real desk (though someday I’d love an antique roll-top desk, preferably overlooking Mobile Bay or the Gulf of Mexico).

    Instead of a dedk, I have a corner of the couch, a lap desk, and a cat who naps on the sofa arm while I write.

    I light a candle with some frilly scent, today it’s strawberry daiquiri – keeps my guys away while I write. They’re sage people.

    I have a sign that says “Explorers are never lost” and a tiny green elephant that reminds me of our time in the Orient.

      • Typos forgiven, Cynthia. If it wasn’t for Grammarly, this post would be a mess. “Explorers are never lost” – I like that. BTW, the chair and seat pad in the noir part of my writing room belonged to my grandmother. Her birth certificate was dated “July 1890 Dakota Territory” with no precise day.

  3. I love that office setup, Garry. I don’t have tchotchkes in my rather conventional space: desk, usual clutter, bookshelves, a reading chair. I tend to look out one of my two windows and see what birds are at the feeder or what other wildlife is in the yard.

    • Thanks, Terry. The rest of the office has a modern flavor with a workstation set up for on-camera stuff. I think birds are the coolest tchotchkes. We have a feeder outside our kitchen window – so far we’ve recorded 22 species of chirpable freeloaders. Not including crows who trash the place.

    • My computer table looks out on our back yard. Interesting denizens include several neighbor cats, squirrels chasing each other, and, yesterday, a pair of pretty peacocks.

  4. Great post, Garry. Amazing what simply letting go can do. 🙂

    I have dozens of tchotchkes, having surrounded myself in my little adobe “Hovel” with things I like from rocks to feathers to odd but natural wood configurations, turtles, a Civil War musket ball, a meteorite, etc. etc. ad nauseam. Also interesting art. Some paintings can hold dozens of story starters.

    But the start—a character with a problem in a setting—is all I get from them, and all I want. From there my characters take over and I leave it to them. I roll off the parapet into the trenches of the story and raced along with my characters, trying to keep up and recording whatever happens and what the characters say and do in response. Great fun.

    • I can visualize your hovel, Harvey. Your character-driven approach to storytelling has had a lasting effect on me. My new series (WIP) is grounded in letting the characters take over while I just record what they do and say. It’s a marvelous approach to creativity. And, no, I don’t let ChatGPT call the shots.

      • Thanks, Garry. As the writer, I’m not living the story. I’m only reporting it. I never don the authorial robes, accompanied by an angelic chorus in the background. 🙂 Nor do I ever ascend into the authorial ivory tower, whence I might control every event of the story, every physical reaction of every character, and every word of dialogue.

        Instead, in my regular old jeans and t-shirt, sneakers and a ball cap, I roll off the parapet into the trenches of the story. I’m thrilled my characters have invited me along at all. To repay them for their kindness, I race through the story with them, doing my best to keep up and recording whatever actually happens and whatever the characters actually say and do in response.

        To do otherwise seems unnatural to me, unauthentic. I would no more force my will on the characters or change any of what they say or do in response to the events of the story than I would force my neighbors to change the facts of their account of their recent trip to Tibet. It isn’t my story. It’s their story.

        • Wonderful statement, Harvey. The more I get to know you, the more I respect your storytelling style and craft wisdom. It’s had a big impact on how I’m approaching my new series. I’d love to meet up with you and DWS sometime. I’ll just stay quiet and let you guys talk. Mind if I take notes?

          • Wow, thanks, Garry. Very high praise indeed, if unearned. I’m just a writer trying to clue others to the freedom, authenticity and exhilaration of telling a story as it unfolds.

  5. Wow, Garry, thanks for this post. I thought I had a mess in my office (I’m not referring to your office. It’s inspiring.), but I have tchotchkes – boxes of stuff from my office when I closed my practice (no place to store them, so they’re stacked around the room gathering dust and taking up space). Books stacked in front of the shelves, waiting to be organized and shelved. Norman Rockwell prints in their frames, stacked one in front of the other on the floor. Ten of every item I would need on a desk, still sitting in boxes. Two CD players, and a couple stereo systems that have not yet been put together. Two floor fans and two floor heaters. Hmm, I seem to have two of everything. I better stop before someone calls the hoarder patrol. You get the point.

    So, thanks to your post, I now know that all that “stuff” should not nag me. It’s tchotchke and will invite the muse to come visit my museum, and chase off writer’s block. I can quit feeling guilty for my mess, and sit back and write.

    Maybe I should dust occasionally.

    Have a good one, Garry!

  6. Inspiring post, Garry. I also love your office, it radiates noir vibes.

    Mine is filled with books on floor to ceiling shelves, and on a little shelf on my old computer hutch. I have a writing desk to the left of the hutch that has a drawer with various odds and ends–a writer’s junk drawer that I’ll open when I’m really stuck. My writing office / library is also my telescope room–I have three set up there, along with binoculars. Stargazing connects me to the larger universe, never failing to inspire.

    I’m also a believer in King’s advice about getting writing and then the muse will decide to show up, rather than waiting. Lately if I get stuck, I find making a list can get me moving again. Worked again yesterday on the story I’m writing.

    • Thanks, Dale. A writer’s junk drawer – I never thought about it but I have one and have no idea anymore of what’s in there. Probably many pairs of lost glasses. BTW, I love following your astronomy adventures. I live in a light polluted environment and I gotta get out of it more often.

      • It’s definitely worth getting to darker skies, makes a world of difference. I mostly observe from my house, which is in a light polluted suburb. The Moon isn’t affected, but it’s extremely hard to view galaxies, for instance, with the exception of the Andromeda galaxy.

  7. I write on a couch in my bedroom, so I don’t have the space for many tchotchkes. But I do have two things that motivate me. One is a tiny typewriter charm (for a bracelet) that hangs from the chain on my lamp. It’s from a friend who said she loved my art, but loved my wriiting more. The other is a Gary Larson cartoon I taped to the outside of my laptop. It shows a chef throwing a potato at a dunk tank target so he can get a lobster in a pot. It reminds me of a quote from the movie Julie and Julia. Julie (a blogger and writer who is trying to cook through Julia Child’s cookbook in a year) has been dreading cooking a lobster. One of her readers says, “Man up. Kill the damn lobster. Just take a knife and do it.” The quote made me think of writing, and how we sometimes just have to do the hard thing and push through until the words come. (Here’s a link to the lobster cartoon — http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-U2lnXdK6Bqs/TjhidaCXPeI/AAAAAAAABj8/ZOR-GqAFqdw/s1600/farside09091.jpg )

  8. I love my tchotchkes! I also have two offices in two different buildings. Today’s office has: a Hot Wheels James Bond Lotus Esprit (in submarine configuration), an X-Wing fighter, a toy truck with a shredded hard drive as cargo, and two mouse pads. Very special mouse pads. Gifts from the late William Graham, forensic detective and mystery writer. One is from the NSA and the other from the National Infrastructure Protection Center.

    Miss you Will.

    Oh, Will’s writting desk would fit right in. Very Chandler/Frank Sinatra.

  9. I use a retro font on Word called “special elite” and have an app that makes old typewriter sounds for each keystroke. I also often write at the cigar lounge while smoking. Closest thing to a pulp setup I can get (all that’s missing is the dame).

  10. Wow, Garry, what a great post. Thanks for giving me a new word and for your delightful guide to pronunciation!

    My first reaction was that I don’t have any tchotchkes. But then I looked around my desk and realized I have some, but they’re all made of words. There are several things on the white board on my desk:
    – “Festina Lente” (Make haste slowly.)
    – “Rage against mediocrity.” (I think that is from Steven James.)
    – “If you want to compete, run a race. If you want to change the world, write a book.” (That one is mine.)
    There’s also a map of the Hero’s Journey, a copy of Psalm 28:7, a poem written by my husband and a few other things.

    However, as enlightening as all those things are, I can’t say they inspire me on demand. On the other hand, last Sunday I ran intervals at the track and had an idea for a blog post which will appear next Monday. So maybe new running shoes are my tchotchke?

  11. 100%. I have various pieces of fantastical, macabre, and creepy art all around my office. I have so many candles, I don’t even want to try to count them. I have strings of fairy lights and Edison bulbs, stacks of books, and a few creepy rag dolls lying around. All of this sets the mood for me each and every day. It suits me. It inspires me. It transports me.

  12. The majority of my topics on my writing blog are from the writing mistakes I find when I’m reading published books. My most recent article is on a disaster of a book who used a chaos character. He walks into scenes, takes over the book for a while, then leaves. The mystery solved itself because the main character was distracted the whole book by this disaster human. Chaos does not equal plot. It’s just something happening.

    I also ask for questions from my students and readers.

  13. I feel like I’ve been drifting from space to space since we moved into our home five years ago, finding it difficult to wrap my mind around projects. My desk is in a common room, which makes it difficult to write because other things are usually going on. My art studio is in what will someday be a dining room, and also serves as a staging space for my business. With the drawing board in place, there isn’t room for a computer. The space I find it most easy to use of late has been the kitchen table. The kitchen is vintage 70s, not by choice, but because we haven’t gotten around to remodeling it yet. But at least it has a good view of a tree-lined back yard, and that’s something. I think my muse could best be described as sound-cancelling headphones.

    • It all comes in time, Mac. My studio has been ten years in the making and it’s pretty much done – no room for anything more as you can see in the pic. Thanks for following TKZ and for leaving a comment!

  14. Bravo, my friend. And the writer lived happily ever after… for two weeks till the next TKZ post came due. 😉

    We went to visit my brother yesterday, otherwise I would’ve been here. Better late than never, right?

  15. Garry, my internet connection has been AWOL so I’m very late to the party. Love your retro look and cool treasures. But, since I’d have to dust tchotchkes, I try to avoid collecting them! Great fun to admire someone else’s.

    Going for a walk is where I most often find my muse and it doesn’t require dusting 😉

    • My tchotchkes are the dustless kind, Debbie. They make tchotchke collecting so much easier. Maybe it’s dust that’s messing with your internet connection 🙂

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