Thursday, April 3, 2014


            Ever since I was around 18 to 20 years old — that is, ever since I consciously committed to being a writer, since I began to conceive of writing as a craft I could hone, and not just an outlet for obsessing over sex and convoluted theological questions — I have had a deep fear seeded in my mind.  I have worried about whether or not the inspiration would suddenly, one day, dry up.
            This isn't terribly unique.  Like a lot of artistically and intellectually inclined teenagers, I was miserable.  I had few friends in high school, and I appeared to terrify boys (emotionally fragile, abnormally tall women are much more popular later in life).  I had little self-confidence and — possibly more importantly — I lacked the knowledge of how to work the system of college applications and scholarships, so I didn't even fit in with the nerdy overachievers.  By and large, my peers rejected me and, as such is a very good recipe for a self-destruction I was trying desperately to avoid, I fought back with a well-known weapon:  "The problem is that I'm so unique and different.  It's because I'm a poet.  No one gets me.  They're just too boring and normal."
            All well and good.  Except...
            I'd never asked to be a poet, and a poem had never, ever come when I'd asked it to.  Inspiration struck, whenever it chose.  And if it was, as I always experienced it, a cluster of words, images, and sensations that arrived of their own accord, it seemed plausible they could just stop coming of their own accord.
            Fast-forward ten years.  Ten years during which I sometimes wrote with passion and commitment, but mostly, um, not.  Mostly, I wondered whether I was any good, and defended my choices to every gray-haired dude who got a fucking CD or latte from me and thought I needed a talking-to about growing up and getting ahold of some money so I could do the all-important/inevitable HAVE A FAMILY.  It sucked.  I was in pain, and on edge.  Because contrary to what many people think, a young woman who wants to make art instead of babies will not be consoled by children.  She will be bitter, and resent the helpless creatures she brought into the world just to feel like a not-crazy-person.
            So I was not inspired, and I was angry.  Mostly at myself.  Nothing was happening.  I wrote two decent poems over the space of four years, and I was a wreck.
            Unfortunately, an overly anxious sense of imminent personal failure doesn't encourage good creative work.  Though God knows I've tried to make it work that way.  I had always scorned self-helpy, warm-fuzzy approaches.  And with some justification:  such things hadn't been necessary to making me a writer, so why now?  Then, when I came across Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way at Elliott Bay, people I did not consider Artists with a capital "A" had spoken so highly of it to me, I was dubious.
            But I was also desperate, and had begun to notice that my method — sit down at the desk at the scheduled time, insist that the poems show up, and then shred every vague notion I had before even bothering to write it down — well...did I mention only two poems in four years?
            My obsession with scheduling and productivity, combined with a pretty violent perfectionism, had failed.  So really, Cameron's book seemed to be, at the very worst, a waste of time.  At best, maybe a slight improvement.

            The twelfth week of The Artist's Way is called "Recovering a Sense of Faith."  Now, caveat:  that "faith" makes me squeamish.  Cameron uses it in the same foggily dangerous way most folks do these days; which is to say, it's code for "stop thinking and believe what I'm telling you."  But she discusses faith so she can get to talking about mystery.  On the subject of mystery, she says this:
"Creativity — like human life itself — begins in darkness.  We need to acknowledge this.  All too often, we think only in terms of light:  'And then the lightbulb went on and I got it!'  It is true that insights may come to us as flashes.  It is true that some of these flashes may be blinding.  It is, however, also true that such bright ideas are preceded by a gestation period that is interior, murky, and completely necessary" (Cameron, 194).
            I can think of at least two ways of interpreting a dark time in creative work.  One could look at a dark period as one where little excites the maker — nothing too thrilling is emerging from the æther — but the writer/artist/creator continues to arrive at the desk/table/easel/whatever and dabble.  This is a time-honored approach, and I definitely don't mean to insult it.  The only limitation is that someone will always have to do some kind of filtering, and this approach will most likely mean the filtering will be done by the reader(s).  Mary Oliver — who has turned out some supremely gorgeous and deeply meaningful poems — seems to operate according to this method.  Also William Yeats and Ted what's-his-face (Sylvia Plath's husband, who I am assured was a Great Poet).  My greatest aversion to it is that reading through a lot of mediocrity doesn't increase one's faith that the truly brilliant pieces really are as brilliant as you think.  One of its greatest strengths, however, lies in the openness it affords the writer.  He or she makes a commitment, follows through, and probably remains fully aware of the fact that the majority of art will not be masterpieces.  He or she also, presumably, chooses to not be deterred by such concerns.  In other words, there's a lot of sanity available in this approach.
            Another way of looking at dark periods is, admittedly, more melodramatic.  Also, I vaguely feel, more European (though God knows no one could get Voltaire to shut up).  It involves simply not working — not one tiny bit — through an uninspired time.  No poems, no sculptures, no music, no nothin'.  Paul Valéry and T.S. Eliot worked this way, as did Rimbaud.  Er, except that Arthur Rimbaud just quit writing altogether after realizing that writing some of the most important poetry of the 19th century had left him miserable.  So, possibly a shitty example.  Or possibly not if you take seriously the notion that there isn't any point in making art if it isn't inspired.  Coming from this perspective, as I tend to, there is one great advantage, and one heartbreaking disadvantage.  On the plus side, you get the self-righteous satisfaction of thinking that your consistently productive and hardworking compatriots are mostly trying to recapture the inspiration that got them into art-making int he first place, to no avail.*  On the down side, you spend extensive periods doing fuckall, and this is where Cameron's warm fuzzies get it wrong.  Because yes, you really can not do art again.  You might be able to do creative work — anything from crafting to happy doodling to genuinely creative parenting — but the head-swimming sensations of inspiration that get many of is into art-making often don't persist into adulthood and responsibility-hood.
            If it isn't obvious from what I've said above, I have begun to tend towards the latter approach.  Or rather, I now aim for the latter approach.  The former — doing the work when I promised myself I'd do the work, and waiting for a giddy, fluttering heart be damned — didn't actually result in much sanity for me.  Honestly, I was probably doing it wrong.  But I don't think my personality will let me get it right — I'm too stuck up to be able to "just do the work" and let it be what it is — so I'm going for downtimes.
            One final thought on the benefits of waiting:  if a person can make the room later in life, one can simply not create at all until the space and resources are available.  A number of very talented writers did highly uncreative things before starting to write their own work.  I'm thinking of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and George Eliot, though I'm sure there are examples in other creative fields.  Craft is a real skill, and I don't mean to imply that someone can just pick up their tool of choice whenever they feel like it and succeed brilliantly.  But I do mean to imply that breaks in creative work do not inexorably lead to never working again.

            But what I hope that I would take away from the various experiences I've had with creative work, as well as what I've read/observed from other artistic types — and yes, also from what I learned from two times through The Artist's Way — is that we are all waiting on something that remains out of our control.  Thankfully, "waiting on" someone or something means a couple of different things.  I can take it to mean what I've experienced, which is that my creative work flows best when I simply wait for inspiration to arrive.  But one can also wait on a person the way a lady-in-waiting or a personal butler used to attend to a woman or man.  One can attend to one's creativity.  No decent lady-in-waiting would do what I do, waiting around for my lady to conk me over the head and insist I pay attention.  A good attendant just hangs around and does the day-in and day-out work they've committed to.  Every once in awhile, the lady will charm and delight.  Most of the time she'll ignore the attendant's very existence, and from time to time she'll be a bitch and give you raw beans to eat because she thinks your pathetic dependence upon her is funny.

            This is my last post on Cameron's Artist's Way.  The process of writing these twelve essays has helped me to figure out what's worth keeping, and what's not.  Several times I've felt guilty, because my thoughts on certain chapters have been more critical than in praise of — in particular, chapters two and three — and what I've said in this post mostly serves to develop earlier thoughts.  But thinking through Cameron's process, and openly dissecting the bits I find silly or useless, has also helped me to clarify which parts were genuinely helpful, and worth carrying forward.
            It also just so happens that I've quit one of my jobs in order to make room for creative work.  I've been sort of painfully interested in a few projects that I can only dip my toes into with a 40-hour-per-week schedule, and so I've opted to chance financial ruin.  Only joking.  (Sort of.)  I've also quit the one job in order to make room for doula studies and work, so fingers crossed that the universe wasn't promising me chocolate cake, and is about to deliver raw beans.
            Hopefully some of the better lessons will bear fruit in the future, and I REALLY hope that some folks have found these posts useful.  As always, feel free to share your thoughts with me, either in the comments section here, or in the real world.  You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter, where I mostly repost all the articles I read that make me wish I'd been born a boy.  *sigh*

            Well, cheerio!!

*Hey, don't knock it; self-satisfied gloating fuels a hell of a lot of artists.