The first Wednesday of every month, writer Jeff Bowles muses on life, creativity, and our collective destinies as makers of cool stuff. You’re a writer, but have you ever thought about how or why? Here are some words to live by.
The Creator in the Creative
Creativity is a hard thing to nail down. I should know. I’ve tried many times. It’s universal, yet it can also be inconsistent. It’s one of the most primal urges we have, but many people stifle the creative impulse within themselves, which must suit them, but which is really a damn shame, if you ask me.
Sometimes, our creativity is like a good friend. At other times, it abandons us completely. In the face of tragedy, trauma, or just a really nasty string of bad luck, who the hell feels like writing anything? It’s hard to make cool stuff when you’re feeling low. But our creativity is never really gone for good.
In some spiritual traditions, the creative drive is an extension of the same lifeforce with which we make babies and raise families. I kind of like that sentiment, because in many ways, the projects we take on, the stories we tell, the art we make, it’s not unlike our very own precious yet finicky offspring. If there is a central intelligence in the universe, a oneness to all things, then certainly creativity is the most primary law residing therein. After all, most people’s concept of God is God, The Creator, not God, That Lazy Dude.
I’ve been creating things my whole life. I like to write songs, like to tell stories, I paint sometimes, and the fact of the matter is I never feel more at peace and connected than when I’m knee-deep in my work. It’s a buzz, really. It keeps me feeling good all day long. It’s also kind of frustrating sometimes, as I’m sure you’ll agree. To write a novel, for instance, requires intense focus and a terrible long-term memory, because if I actually thought about how often I’ve failed, I probably wouldn’t want to write at all.
If not for the unsettled nature of these things, I could live my life inside my art and never leave. Never even peek my head out to see what’s happening in the world. I also don’t have any children, which simplifies things, I suppose. My wife and I had no luck conceiving. As much as 15% of couples have fertility issues, and it makes you wonder about the connection between that essential lifeforce inside us and our ability to propagate on any level. I know that during the worst of our disappointment, I wrote more than I ever had before. Story after story after story. Mostly sad, sometimes nightmarish. It’s funny how your mental and emotional states can seep into your writing.
I had to learn to get good at creation, because for a very long time, it felt like there was nothing else for me. One can almost imagine the cosmos having one or two sloppy first drafts. There were many days I opted to spend time alone, probably because it was painful for me to see my wife in such misery. We were both hurting. We both needed to feel our pain, and then hopefully one day, to heal from it. She really wanted to be a mom, and as it slowly became clear she wouldn’t get that chance, I pursued her in ways I hoped would get through to her, despite her depression and angst. I wrote a lot about fertility. I wrote about miscarriages and frustration and having a life you’re not sure you want anymore. And I have to wonder if I had become a father, would I have worked even half as hard? I needed that energy out of me, needed to express it in some constructive way.
And I guess that’s the point, isn’t it? One little act of creation has the power to shape the world. Some people even believe we have the ability to create our own realities through sheer willpower. In New Age spirituality, they call it the Law of Attraction or the Law of Resonance. The spiritual self-help book The Secret cracked that whole thing open for mass consumption, though the basic metaphysical presumptions behind it are reportedly eons old. What is consciousness? Can you feel it? Manipulate it? Is consciousness conscious in the sense that it walks and talks and blinks and cracks a joke now and then? Or is it patient and observant within us, sleeping yet not asleep, wistful and dreaming while we strut around, the emperors of our little empires?
Many people perceive malleable seams in the fabric of reality. In practical application, sitting down to write a story is not unlike constructing a whole universe from thin air. Making gold from lead, that’s sort of the joy of being alive. At least it is for me. The fires that forge whatever I want, they burn brightly. It’s not such a stretch to imagine an unconscious connection between what I dream and how I live. And some forms of creativity are born in even hotter fires still.
Love, I’m certain, has spurred more creative endeavors than any other human experience. Unrequited love, for sure. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt the sting for someone unavailable or uninterested, but honestly, it makes for fantastic art. Hallelujah, at least it’s good for something, right? There is a kind of sacred triumvirate between the heart, the head, and the drive to create. I love my wife dearly. I love that I am afforded the joy of loving her. I write for her as much as for anything else. It’s a privilege and a wonder.
We can drive ourselves crazy stewing in our own unexpressed romantic juices. And it’s not like artists aren’t known for craziness, right? Take a van Gogh, lop off the tip of one ear for a woman, and they’ll never let you hear the end of it (pun not intended). It’s a matter of pride for some, carrying that torch. I prefer to carry nothing at all, or at least a slice of pizza or something, but that’s just me.
It begs the question, do we have to be in pain to make good art? Or perhaps in some kind of rapture? Religious art is made in the latter, pop songs and pop books the former. Peak experience is universal, though not in any form universally understood. The creative mind is often also the jealous and overly dramatic mind. Love makes you feel that way. I suppose pain does, too. All the tragedies of the world couldn’t fit into a million books, but don’t think people haven’t tried.
Essentially, creativity is a salve. It’s soothing. It boosts your brain chemistry, all those wonderful joy hormones, and it produces an effect like falling in love. Surely, if there is something of a higher nature in us, our creativity is its first mile marker. If you’re a particularly creative individual—and if you’re reading this article, I figure you must be—then wear it proudly, and don’t forget it’s one of the things that makes you who you are. I wouldn’t even know myself as Jeff Bowles if I couldn’t put the right words down on the page or strike just the right notes on a guitar.
High-mindedness is all well and good, but the truth is you’re human, you’re mortal, and at some point you will not exist in the form you enjoy now. Which makes it even more crucial for you to follow your star and use your talents and your natural spark and intelligence to turn lead into gold. Never underestimate the power of a good mystery. Perhaps it doesn’t matter where our creativity comes from, how it manifests. Maybe it’s enough that we perform the work of our kind, which is to say, the work of the universe itself.
Have you created something great recently? Something you’re really proud of? Share it in the comments section below. And meet me back here same time next month. We’ll have another chat. 😊
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Back in the Saddle
By Jeff Bowles
The first Wednesday of every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.
If you’ve been following the Pep Talk, you know I’m big on writers cutting themselves some slack. Burnout kills creativity and breeds writer’s block. So while I’ve always been a fan of the idea that we need to keep working in order to evolve, grow, and succeed, I’m incredibly cognizant of the ever-present reality most writers hit a wall every now and then, and that it’s okay to admit and even embrace that.
Now, a bit of an admission. The past two years or so, I’ve been struggling to rebound from my own slowdown. This decade has been intense for me, particularly on the creative front. I went from earning my MFA in a very hard and fast environment, to publishing short stories at a fairly decent rate, to suffering some unfortunate circumstances in my personal life, to not writing a single word for several years.
Really, this has been the worst burnout phase of my life. I’m in my mid-thirties now, so it stands to reason that ten years of working, practicing, and publishing finally caught up with me. Furthermore, we can’t stop living very human lives under very human circumstances. If I hadn’t experienced such a shake-up on a personal level, I might have been able to keep working. But things being what they were…
So this Pep Talk is not about showing yourself some love when you’re slowing down. It’s about being eager and ready when you’re speeding back up. I recently started a new writing project, a novel, and I’m pleased to report I’m about 9,000 words in. If that doesn’t sound like much of an achievement to you, it’s probably because you’re a hard-nosed writer who puts in your time, come rain or shine. And before my productivity started to drop off, I was right there with you. But the truth is we all need a break sometimes. All of us. Actually, very often life forces us to take breaks, and we can bemoan, resist, and condemn them, but it doesn’t change the fact that a career in the publishing industry is—in its most ideal form—a long-term project. As such, detours are something of an obligation.
For several years on end, my average yearly wordcount was around 120,000. And that was after a few years of maybe 75,000 to 100,000 words. Really, I was ramping up to something big. I’m a short story guy with some long-form publications in the indie realm. Not precisely a best-seller, but not a newbie either. And as I said, grad school was intense. I think a lot of people who go after an MFA have a similar experience, right on down to needing time off after graduation. The sad and torrid fact of the matter is I haven’t attempted a book-length project since I completed my thesis novel four years ago. That’s a huge dry spell for me, so I’ll take that nice 9,000-word head start, thank you very much.
If being kind to yourself in the face of writer’s block is about realizing you’re not a story machine (no matter how much you want to be), booting up your systems after some downtime requires acknowledging any fears or insecurities that might come up. It’s scary getting back in the saddle, or at least it can be. It’s also pretty exciting, isn’t it? Maybe, like me, you started wondering if you’d ever be productive again. Am I finally done with this whole writing thing? Where are my abilities?! Why don’t I feel like telling stories!? WHY, GOD, WHY!?
Got a flair for the dramatic? Well step right up, ‘cause this next one could be a doozy: in almost any case, we need to be able to accept the fact we might be rusty. Now I took a break of a few years, but I’ve known authors who went ten, fifteen, or twenty, and who were startled to encounter really crummy writing on their part. I know, it’s disappointing. Turns out none of us is a miracle worker. So a little piece of advice, maybe start slow, a short story or two. Heck, start writing blog posts or flash fiction or maybe even try your hand at a new genre, like creative nonfiction or poetry. That’s actually a good place to start. Writing truth is, in my experience, almost always easier than writing fiction. The point is you need a jumping on point, something you can sink your teeth into that doesn’t require you to … well, break your damn teeth.
And respect yourself enough to know when it’s time to work and when it’s not. Again, I really do appreciate the workhorse model of writing. That’s how the beast feeds itself. It’s the lifeblood of what we do. I just think it’s a bit self-deluded and unkind to think you can go on like that forever. Maybe some of us can, but for the majority, it does no good to crash and burn. Don’t knock yourself for it, man. And don’t let colleagues or friends and family make you feel bad or lazy or lost.
When it’s time to get back to work, it’s time. You’ll know you’re ready because—hey, here’s a nice big no-brainer for you—you’ll actually feel like it. Don’t push yourself too hard too soon. It’s a pretty organic process when it comes down to it. You can’t get blood from a stone, though I’m sure if you hit yourself in the head enough times with said stone blood would ensue. Never imagine yourself to be something you aren’t, a literary god, born of good fortune and the primal mud from which warriors emerge, Achilles of the word processor, Odysseus of plot structure and acute character psychology. Nah, you’re just a humble guy or gal who likes to crank out some good writing every now and then. Maybe you thought this day would never come. How do you feel now that it has?
I believe that life is almost always a matter of two steps forward, one step back. It’s how we progress as human beings. So two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward: hey look, the math checks out. You’re one step ahead of where you were last time. It’s like a Jacob’s ladder, right? You zig left, zag right, but you’re always climbing higher. Don’t feel like writing today? Consider, if you will, investing in some fun. Watch a few old movies that always manage to inspire you. Read a good book. Listen to some music, or try your hand at painting, sculpting, songwriting, video production, anything that engages your creativity and that doesn’t have all that unbearable weight built up behind it.
This is a fun job. Remember that. It’s fun. We get to tell stories and entertain people with our words. If you’ve been at this a while, and you’ve done silly things before, like attempting to quit but finding it quite impossible, then consider the possibility you’re meant for this life. You shouldn’t shirk being meant for something. Any way you slice a lifelong love affair, it’s fate, my friends. It’s kismet. Maybe you aren’t a literary god, but rest assured, the real gods up on Mount Word-lympus have plans for you that go back eons. One last time, do however much you actually feel you can do, and get excited about the prospects. If, lord forbid, you someday end up in a terrible driving, skying, skydiving, or rogue spelunking accident, you’re going to want a surgeon who can put you back together with slow and steady hands. Do yourself a favor and be that surgeon for your writing.
Until next time, everybody. The straightest line between two points is … wait, you guys are using straight lines?! So that’s why my writing is so crooked.
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