Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Creative Life: Boom & Bust

Creative people are rarely consistent people: it’s the nature of the beast. Whether we’re getting distracted by the Next Thing or Next Project or the Next Episode of Roseanne on the SuperStation (God forbid), it’s very easy to lose focus on the things we’re passionate about.

Time for a Few Questions:

* Why is that?

* If I love to write (as I do very much) why does the legal pad or computer screen or the backside of printed-out drafts (I do this a lot for some reason) repulse me sometimes?

* Why do I walk around full of bundled anxiety and jumbled ideas some days, planning fully to write my brains out, only to find myself finally “in the mode” at one in the a.m. too tired to lift my arms to type, let alone think?

* Why, on some vague level on many vague days, am I unhappy until I’ve written what I consider to be a “good amount,” yet unable to get it together to bang that goodly amount out?

* Stephen King, in his excellent On Writing, questions the authors who have written one or two great works and then faded into obscurity, such as Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird. He asks, “If you’ve found something you like and that you’re good at, why don’t you do it all the time?” (For greatest effect, listen to the audio book version read by the author for the full-on Maine whine).

But the question resonates for all of us creative types out there. Why aren’t we happily cranking out beautiful manuscript after manuscript or painting after painting? Indeed, there are times where I am happily cranking out words, and life is a song during those times, isn’t it? It feels as though the burst and mania of creativity will never end, my mind a rushing river of ideas and phrases and clever connections.

But then it shuts down. Why, oh Lord of one’s choice, why?

It could be fear of failure or fear of success. It could be what many creative people tend to do: dream bigger than Universes and Constellations, then get terrified when trying to get past, “It was a dark and stormy night…”

* Why, why, why?

The fact is that nobody knows why. And you know what? Here’s a little secret.

It doesn’t matter why.

The only thing that matters is working on ourselves to get to a point where we can be consistently productive and maximally creative, whatever that means for each individual.

In other words: you can’t torture the muse into giving up the goods, but you can coax and woo him or her and be absolutely attentive and ready when he/she is ready to transmit Genius.

Dispense with Flowery Talk and Cut to English:

* Be consistent.

The Creativity Muscle needs to be exercised, just like the biceps and gluts and traps and any other abbreviated muscle terms. A little bit everyday does more, over the long haul, than the Weekend Warrior thing. Most people have a hectic schedule, with spouse, family, kids, work, and obligations galore. The key is to carve out a little slice of You Time on a daily basis that is both a refuge from the everyday grind and a place to explore and create. A slice of You Space can help a lot with this as well.

* Be serious about the work, but don’t take yourself so seriously.

I actually just stole that line from Clint Eastwood, who said it during a repeat of Inside the Actor’s Studio. The point is that when you signal, to yourself and others, that there is a point during each and everyday – even if it’s fifteen or twenty minutes — that you will be incommunicado in Your Time/Space, you are making a commitment to the Creative Life that will be steadily rewarded.

* Ass to Seat.

Richard Rhodes, writer and author of the also excellent How to Write, was given supremely brilliant advice by his grizzled old editor. “If you want to be a writer,” he was told, “apply your ass firmly to seat.” In other words: show up, sit down, stare at screen/typewriter, and eventually good things will happen.

Carve out a time and space for yourself to be creative. Take yourself seriously as a creative person. Apply ass to seat. Be consistent.

And good things will happen.


Wally Bangs said...

Great post, Eric. I too find that the muse always hits before bedtime. I guess that after the stress of a 9-5 job, I'm finally able to think when I no longer have the energy to do anything. I've laid awake many a night with incredible thoughts writing themselves in my head, but as soon as I grab a pen and pad to actually get it down, the lethargy hits like a ton of bricks. The only thing is to do. I've added a link to your site. Here's the post:

Eric Berlin said...

Hey Wally - welcome to Dumpster Bust.

You bring up a great point that I only touched on, which is the time of day that creative people / writers can be most productive. I have several more Creative Life posts lined up, and I want to get into that a little bit more down the road.

girlfiend said...

Do you listen to audio books often?

The Sore Loser said...

Sometimes the "ass to seat" thing works just fine but sometimes a little distance is extremely helpful. I often find that if I put a project away for several days (or several weeks) I return to it with better ideas.

Also, when the muse is stingy, I often find it helps to rewrite what I've already written. Often it comes out better on the rewrite and, occasionally, the muse is rekindled.

Eric Berlin said...

gf - On occasion.

Eric Berlin said...

SL - There are many ways to "trick the muse," and there's really no right way -- everybody's different. And in fact, most people tend to change all the time. I do believe that having some kind of regiment is helpful however.

(That being said, mine changes all the bloody time!)