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The Creative Life: Boom & Bust

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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.

For more on this and every other topic under the sun, check out:

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  • Nice post – there was a townhall with Jonathan Lethem, author of excellent books like Fortress Of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn on NPR yesterday – he riffed quite a bit on writing, including why he writes. He said it was because he was terrified of silence – and constantly grappled with it. He also said that to fill the white noise track in his head while writing, he listened to music, and ball games. – Whatever works.

  • Thanks Aaman. I read a review of one of Lethem’s books quite a while ago and remember being intrigued.

    Really interesting about the fear of silence: I’m quite similar, though it’s getting better for me as I grow older. However, I’m always nervous / fidgety if I don’t have something to immediately to occupy myself with: newspaper, website, back of milk carton, etc. I prefer to write with music blaring in my ears, which I then kind of blot out as pleasant white noise so that I can get down to the business of writing.

    In one of my next Creative Life posts, I’ll talk about environment and particularly how it applies to writers.