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.
Creativity, Mourning, and the Year 2021
2020 was a rough year for all of us. To varying degrees, it was tense, stressful, tragic, contentious, and perhaps most surprisingly of all, dangerous. I had been hoping the new year would bring better tidings, but my 2021 thus far has been a doozy as well.
On January 2nd, one of my poor kitties passed away. It was very sudden, very sad. He was only two years old, and a sweeter animal you’ve never met. Then, just a couple days later, my father called to tell me a relative had died from complications related to Coronavirus and a recent injury. Needless to say, it feels like tragedy and sadness are still everywhere I look.
I’m not a pessimist or a cynic, and I almost always believe the future can be better. This month’s Words to Live By is about creative struggle. What do you do as a writer or a musician, an artist or photographer, when it seems like you’re surrounded by tragedy? How do you stay productive when you’re feeling down or scared or just plain fed up with life? Should you stay productive at all, or is it more appropriate to take some time for yourself?
As I’ve mentioned in other articles, my method of writing fiction is minimalist. I only write 400 words per day, and I typically don’t do it every day of the year. It’s low-commitment, and it keeps me on the ball over the weeks and months it takes to generate a new novel. Having a low workload has been enormously helpful over the past few days. By the same token, there’s been a lot of grief in my household, and I don’t mind admitting that having some kind of daily work process—any kind of process—has helped get my mind off things when it’s all become just a bit too much.
I’m also a musician, an independent singer songwriter, and I’ve got an entertainment channel on YouTube. This is a solution some people choose, work through the pain. It isn’t for everyone. Sometimes it can even develop into something we modern people have termed workaholism. And let’s be honest, there are times in life working through the pain isn’t an option. I’m a creator, and if I’m not creating, I tend to struggle. But we all know how grief goes. Yes, sometimes it can be a good idea to distract yourself, stay busy, keep your chin up, but then again, when we deny our own turbulent emotions too long, they can fester and become something much, much worse.
If you’re going through tough times at the moment, or if you’re just a bit shell-shocked from the surprises and pitfalls of 2020, you may want to take extra care of yourself and the people closest to you. Yes, most of us have become very good at looking after the health of our bodies, but what about the health of our hearts and minds?
About five years ago, my life was in shambles. Mental health issues, stress, and exhaustion got the better of me. At that time, I was forced to place all my creative drives and impulses on the backburner. Things were so chaotic for a while, I couldn’t possibly have written a single word, and the thought of picking up a guitar only filled me with dread. It was appropriate for me to quit at that time. Just up and quit. And what’s more, I wasn’t sure I’d ever pick any of it up again. I should’ve known I could trust myself to do what was right for me. In general, I should’ve known it was better to trust, to have faith, and to give myself the time and space I needed to recover. No guilt, just allow and help myself get well again.
Sometimes when we feel like giving up, it isn’t because we’re weak or because we lack longevity. Sometimes it’s because we do in fact have the right to give up. At least for a while. I’m here to tell you, when the deluge of life begins, and it doesn’t show any sign of stopping, it’s incredibly important to lay down what you need to lay down, take with you only what you require, and face the storm with all the confidence you can muster. The real question is whether or not you can recognize, as I failed to, that the work of life resides in the heart, in the soul, and that patience and self-compassion are incredibly important, crucial in fact.
Having modified my schedule some time ago has been beneficial. I can weather fiercer storms, but I’m always conscious of the fact that I don’t have to do it if it gets too challenging. I won’t work myself to the bone just because I think I have to, not anymore. I miss my dear relative, and truth be told, I miss my poor kitty. I suppose, like many of you, I’m also grieving the world as I once knew it.
Nothing lasts forever. All things pass away in time. That’s especially true of people, places, and eras. Like I said, I’m not a pessimist or a cynic. I believe the future can and will be better. If you’re experiencing similar thoughts and feelings, I urge you to consider your own needs. You may feel better working through it. Then again, you may not. Look at yourself, your strengths, and while you’re at it, look at your weaknesses in equal measure. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. I believe you’ll know what to do; as with most everything else we encounter, it’s all a matter of instinct and timing.
There’s no use denying it: sometimes life can be hard. But that doesn’t mean you have to suffer alone, suffer in silence, suffer instead of choosing to do what’s right for you and for the people you care about most. Take care of yourselves out there, everybody. I’ll talk to you again next month in Words to Live By.
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!
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Wednesday the 21st is the 8th anniversary of the death of my son, Michael Daniel Lee Booth. Since his death, September has always been a pretty difficult month for me. His birthday was the 9th. He had just turned nineteen when he took his own life. I relate well to the song by Green Day, “Wake Me Up When September Ends”, but of course, I can’t sleep the whole month away. It’s just not practical. So, instead I try and find some way to cope by honoring him in some way.
Since his death, I’ve talked a lot about how I want to write a book that will tell his story, and mine too I suppose, or at least the story of how his death affected me, and changed my life. When I first began thinking about it, I referred to it as a memoir, but it has to be more than that because there are so many others his death affected. I keep putting off writing it because I’m not sure I’m ready to dredge up all the memories that writing his story would bring. Some of them are still so painful it seems as if they only occurred yesterday.
For a long time after Mike died, it seemed that he was the only thing I could write about, and many of those writings will eventually be incorporated into the book. For now though, I’d like to make this blog post in honor of him, and share with you the eulogy I wrote. I stood up and read it at his funeral with tears streaming down my face, my heart breaking inside of me. People said it was brave of me to get up there and read it in front of all those that attended his funeral, and there were a lot. But for me, it was just something that I had to do. After all, I am a writer and he was my son.
Michael Daniel Lee Booth
When Mike Booth said, “I love you”, it was forever. And when he called you his friend, you knew you could depend on him to stand by you, no matter what. He loved to try new things, to explore and to learn. He had a love for life and for all that he held sacred. Mike strove for excellence in all that he did, and lived by a code of honor that was extremely tough to uphold. His Christian upbringing was intermixed with Hindu and Buddhist beliefs to make up the tapestry of his own personal belief system that was disciplined and unyielding. When he made mistakes, Mike was harder on himself than anyone else ever could have been.
When he got mixed up with the wrong people and things, he made some poor choices. He did not deny what he had done, but instead stood up and accepted the punishment that was given to him. He tried to make amends for his wrongs and was on his way to accomplishing that goal. He expressed great sorrow for his errors, and inflicted emotional punishment on himself over and above what the law could ever require of him.
He had a strong will and could accomplish anything that he set his mind to, including learning to speak Japanese and perform martial arts skillfully, all on his own. Mike had a love for Japanese culture and he could have lived off of green tea and sushi. His knowledge and skills were gladly shared with those who wished to learn. Mike had a love for nature and enjoyed all kinds of outdoor activities, including skiing, hunting, fishing and hiking. His imagination was endless and he created stories and drawings that reveal a talent far beyond his tender youth.
Mike was so much to so many people; a loving son, a dependable big brother, a doting little brother, a respectful grandson, a loyal friend and a devoted husband. He loved his dog, Zaar, who was a companion and loyal friend to him. Mike was sensitive, and hurt so easily and so deeply, yet he was too strong willed to ever let it show outwardly. Only through his writing, can we glimpse the love that he embraced or the pain that he felt. When he loved, he loved with all of his being. Mike was fun loving and enjoyed spending time with those that were important in his life. He had beautiful curls and the most wonderful smile that could light up my heart whenever I saw it. Mike turned 19 three weeks ago. He had a whole life ahead of him. He was much too young to be called home to God.
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Grief is one of the most intense emotions in the spectrum of human emotions. Grief has driven men to murder and suicide, out of feelings of complete and utter despair. It is also one of the most powerful motivational tools a writer can have.Grief inspires such passionate, heartfelt writing, that its sincerity cannot be doubted. Even in fictional writing, touching, emotional scenes can be created by drawing on personal grief, and injecting feelings to produce a very convincing work. After all, we draw on our own experiences in everything write, so why wouldn’t this powerful emotion that stirs anguish and passion within us, become inspiration for some of our most moving creations?
Oh, sure. Anger and love rank up there in the highly inspiring motivations, as well, but there is something about grief that just grabs a hold of a person and latches on. Grief is not easily shaken. In fact, just thinking about a time when we grieved for the loss of a loved one is enough to bring those feelings back up close to the surface in an instant, no matter how long it has been since that loss was suffered. Now, I am not suggesting that anyone go and kill off a loved one for the sake of a story, but I am saying that when you have grief, you should learn to tap into it and channel the emotion into your writing.
When my son died two years ago, it didn’t seem like I would ever be able to write again, my sorrow was so overwhelming. While making preparations for his funeral, however, the matter of his eulogy came up, and I knew that I had to write it. It wouldn’t have been right to let someone else. The eulogy that I wrote was overflowing with the essence of who my son was and my feelings of loss, now that he was gone. That was the beginning of a long list of poetry and short stories that I have since written, that all draw on my grief from that same loss, as well as a good start on a memoir about his life and how he died. That collection has turned out to be some of my most moving work.
A well written book or story that has been inspired by grief brings tears to the eyes of readers. Grief is a strong and pungent emotion; it can become almost an addiction that you can’t get away from, no matter how hard you try, because it just won’t let go of you. Many writers drink in that bitter nectar and then channel it into something beautiful; something moving; something heart stirring. Written words of sorrow and despair have the ability to reach out from the page and grab readers, catching them unaware, and arousing their own sorrows and grief within themselves. Writers have realized this since the very origins of literature, when the grief of Gilgamesh, over the death of his friend, stirs in him a fear of death and a realization that he himself will someday die, which in turn, prompts him to journey into the realm of the Gods and the underworld, searching for eternal life.
So, the next time you feel tears brimming in your eyes, after you grab a tissue, rush to your notebook or keyboard and start writing. You never know when your grief will produce a passionate, moving story that will stir reader’s emotions and rock your world when it goes viral. I know. I’m still waiting for it, too, but don’t give up hope. It could happen!