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Shipwrecked on a Desert Island: Thoughts on the Creative Process

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Which single book would you rather have knowing you’ll be shipwrecked on a desert island? Many say the Bible.

It’s a preposterous idea, completely out of touch. Which is why Robinson Crusoe is a lie. Why bother trying to survive, let alone read anything, if you’re destined to spend the rest of your life alone? Even hope would be useless, for any such hope must center on the idea of beating it, the clawing and the scratching. Indeed, only with the appearance of good boy Friday does the novel assume the aura of credibility. The Lord of the Flies is by far a more realistic portrayal. For all the inherent evil and the darkness of human heart, thinly veiled by upper-class upbringing and the veneer of civilization, at least the boys have one another. They form a community.

Aristotle once said that man is a political animal. Utter nonsense! He’s a social animal first and foremost. It’s not any great book that will keep you from going insane on a desert island, no musical composition nor the finest work of art, but human interaction. Barring that, you’ll have no chance in hell.

A scene from The Cardinal of the Kremlin comes to mind. It’s a new KGB, more humane, above such methods of extracting information as torture, water-boarding, and whatnot. Sensory deprivation is the latest thing. They put you in a tank for a day or two, and you’re floating. No sense of gravity to tell which side is up or down, no bodily movements to orient yourself by. You’re in total darkness, deprived as well of all sound except perhaps the beating of your own heart; and after a while, even of that you’re not certain. Yet your mind keeps on racing as never before and your imagination is at its most active, craving input, any input, but none is forthcoming. You experience nothing except your own disembodied self. Soon enough, even this you begin to doubt. Am I dead or alive, in heaven or in hell? Any sensation, even excruciating pain, would be better, infinitely better, than the state you’re in. And so it was with Svetlana:

She was lying on a gurney when he got there, the wetsuit already taken off. He sat beside the unconscious form and held her hand as the technician jabbed her with a mild stimulant. She was a pretty one, the doctor thought as her breathing picked up. He waved the technician out of the room, leaving the two of them alone.

“Hello, Svetlana,” he said in his gentlest voice. The blue eyes opened, saw the lights on the ceiling, and the walls. Then her head turned toward him.

He knew he was indulging himself, but he’d worked long into the night and the next day on this case, and this was probably the most important application of his program to date. The naked woman leaped off the table into his arms and nearly strangled him with a hug. It wasn’t particularly because he was good-looking, the doctor knew, just that he was a human being, and she wanted to touch one. Her body was still slick with oil as her tears fell on his white laboratory coat. She would never commit another crime against the State, not after this. It was too bad that she’d have to go to a labor camp. Such a waste, he thought as he examined her. Perhaps he could do something about that. After ten minutes, she was sedated again, and he left her asleep.

I’ll never understand a recluse. It’s a genetic defect or a product of maladjustment. Both perhaps. How people like that can go through life is beyond me.

A writer’s retreat is another oxymoron. And I don’t mean “workshops,” for they are community. I mean rather the condition of self-imposed solitude, as when you withdraw yourself from your natural habitat for art’s sake. All art in my view is a by-product of interaction – the artist’s response to his or her environment. To deprive oneself of the needed stimulus is not only foolhardy but ill-fated as well. It’s like removing the ground from under yourself.

Memory is never enough. You need constant egging and agitation, aches and pains, a sense of accomplishment borne out of struggle, agony and ecstasy, intensive engagements and strategic withdrawals. Like the rhythm of life itself with all its ebbs and flows, a creative process must reflect such a cycle, since art is life in miniature. Otherwise, it’s sterile.

There’s no greater punishment than solitary confinement and no hope of escaping it. Give me a rowdy prison or Solzhenitsyn’s gulag, sodomize me many times over, but don’t deny me your presence. A concentration camp would be better than the jail I’m in.

I think of God as I write this, and I cry. All-Consciousness and no one to share it with, all in vain for lack of connection! The Creator exiled from her own creation. There’s no greater pain, no greater loneliness, no greater suffering. Hell would be a thousand times better. I pray there are angels in heaven – for God’s sake!

Why do I bother to write under these conditions? Right now it’s the only meaning I can attach to life, my only connection with my past, my present, and my even less certain future.

I must diagnose my present condition, put a finger on what ails me, identify the cancerous growth and remove it. I know that sitting on my ass all day or twiddling my thumbs ain’t going it do it. That’s a recipe for disaster.

As long as I remember, I was never conscious of time. There was never enough of it in a day to do all the things you wanted to; if anything, I’d always run out of time, wondering all along what I’d done with it, when and where I’d squandered it. But now? Time has become my constant companion, a fellow traveler, a shadow. And I can’t seem to get rid of it; whichever way I turn, it keeps on following me like a phantom. It’s become my worst enemy in fact. Imagine – all the time in the world and nothing to do!

I’m thinking of strategies. Perhaps if I introduce rigor into my life, I might beat it. For all the drawbacks of living in a rural town, there are some advantages. For instance, everything’s spread out.

Just think: the nearest liquor store, two miles from my involuntary confinement; a smoke shop, mile and a half; a full-service supermarket, another two miles give or take. But you get the idea. So daily walks, I’m thinking, along with upper-body workouts, and I’ll be in shape in no time.

I realize it’s artificial to be structuring your life so – it’s so foreign to me! – but I have a bigger fish to fry. And now the immediate object, it seems to me, is to overcome the lethargy that’s slowly setting in and taking over, a kind of numbness which gradually descends on both body and soul and is reminiscent of dying. A self-imposed regimen and Spartan lifestyle may well be the ticket.

There’s still the matter of quality. One would think an artist could create in the midst of turmoil, that some of the best works are born in fact out of some such and no other circumstances.

Nothing could be more false! Where one usually goes wrong here is about the nature of the struggle: it’s not with oneself but with the material. And while emotional conflict, hopelessness, despair, any of the above, may serve the artist as a necessary backdrop – indeed, as a powerful resource for the work in progress! – there’s also a sense in which that struggle must essentially be over. In short, one must first come to terms with oneself, with one’s own situation, before one can tackle the extraneous problem of taking control and giving shape to the composition. Clearly, I’ve got a long way to go. Hence this frantic effort to pull myself up by my own bootstraps and stress on the physical.

Yet I know I’m deluding myself. It’s not my body that needs overhauling but my mind. Total catharsis! Mind and spirit have always been the prime movers for me, the body merely following. So let me just plug away with my writing though I know it stinks. Who knows, I might surprise myself one day and have a good laugh.

I’m thinking of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer – a kind of mélange of personal experiences and reminiscences put together into a coherent whole. I realize our situations are incomparable, he living in the City of Lights and I in H town – no colorful characters here, no memorable episodes, no heroes, least of all, no city which always holds its allure and forever keeps you captive. Right now it’s just a diary – how well I know it! – a record of my wretched state of mind, but give me time.

Contrary to popular belief, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag was not a random collection of notes hurriedly jotted down on sheets of toilet paper, but a reconstruction. Well, I’m in the same boat more or less, imprisoned with no means of escape. And I, too, hope to put these notes to good use someday, to make them into a readable whole, one that’s compelling and flowing and all that. But first let me throw this albatross off my neck so I can breathe again. I’ve got to get back to the rhythm of writing. How else am I to justify my existence?

Meanwhile, I’m beset by images from the past. The other day I dreamt of Alameda. Apparently, I was visiting there with the idea of returning. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, typical California weather. It seemed like a holiday or a Saturday at least, and the signs were abundant. Park Street was a real promenade, teeming with life and people strolling leisurely with no care in the world.

I ran into Nick and Yvette. When I told them I’d moved to Kentucky, Nick exclaimed: “How could you do such a stupid thing?” I wanted to play chess but they had other plans. They promised though to call me the next day so we could have a few games.

And then there was Nancy. As she boarded the bus I was on, imagine, we started talking. She was as real as can be, every single aspect of her from head to toe, her voice and smile included so real in fact I felt I could almost touch her. It’s been long since my dreams were this vivid. It’s my mind, I guess, compensating for the unreality which surrounds me.

In Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller remarks: “It is not difficult to be alone if you are poor and a failure. An artist is always alone – if he is an artist. No, what the artist needs is loneliness.”

It may be so. Consider, however, that Miller is residing in Paris, his true home. He’s got plenty of friends among the émigré community, friends who sustain him through dinner invitations, conversations and whatnot, even if he is on the bum. And when worse comes to worst, Paris itself can become a friend.

Hence the corrective: “Loneliness” doesn’t work with “being alone” as a backdrop. Quite the contrary, it needs stimulation in order to be effective. Intensive engagements and strategic withdrawals!

But I had better stop my ramblings and thoughts of self-pity. Better times are sure to come.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • http://www.joannehuspek.wordpress.com Joanne Huspek

    Truly a wonderful piece, Roger and I’ll tell you why.

    Most people don’t have the thoughts to begin with. That you do speaks volumes about your mind.

    I need people (meaning other writers) to write. I need books to read for enjoyment to write. I also need experiences to write. Writers don’t just “make things up” — they experience and create.

    The other thing they do is write all the time. The attempt to “create” something out of nothing is part of the journey. (Same goes for musicians and artists.) Once you stop, you begin the decline to non-creativity.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    That’s why I had sent you my stuff. I am in a funk and I’d better get out of it. Otherwise, it will be like a Hemingway kind of ending. I wouldn’t mind if I was already immortal. But I’m not.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    36 comments in the last 24 hours, and you’re in a funk?

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Desperation, Matt. Work on re-editing my novel, so I’m online and BC is a diversion.

  • http://www.whalertly.com/wordpress Robert M. Barga

    I would point out that sensory tanks are used to relax people now, not torture them

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Good to know that, Robert. Like a sauna, I suppose.

  • http://slcunningham.com S L Cunningham

    Enjoyed! Tom Hanks in “Castaway” also illustrates what you have reflected on in terms of our need to be connected to others.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Thanks, S L. I’ll look it up.

  • http://carolinehagood.typepad.com/ Caroline Hagood

    I enjoyed your musings on the creative process.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    That’s a compliment coming from you, Caroline. You write like a dream – powerful imagery and memorable metaphors.

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