There is Nothing Left

Eyes open. Again. Another day. I did not ask for this, I do not want this. The peace, the rest, the calm of sleep – shattered. Wakefulness, awareness, being there, being here. Again. The sun goes up and the sun goes down, I beat out my routine in all the bleakness and faded never-was-glory of a place that might have almost been something once, long ago, but has now ground its way down to such vacuity that only chemically induced false mirth can make it tolerable. And we are all out of chemicals.

Life can seem like little more than a passing of the time that begins and ends ignominiously. One never asked to be born but one was, and there is only to make the most of it. Yet what exactly does that mean, “making the most of it”? In the absence of any preordained purpose or plan it must come down to the manner in which one is able to make some meaning out of it all. The universe might be deterministic, we might all be bound to the fates, the tightly wound chains, wrought by our circumstances, genetic inheritances, upbringing, socioeconomic backgrounds, opportunities had and opportunities not had during our formative years, etc., etc., etc. We might in fact have no choice in anything and are simply stuck: hamsters sprinting away in spinning wheels until our hearts give out. Whether or not that is the case though without the Norns around to tell us there is still that vast yawning emptiness that must be filled, somehow, someway, always.

We know the answer to this, of course. We are writers, and so we write. We pile up project upon project, barely getting started on one before an idea strikes for the next, disciplining ourselves to actually make a plan and then stick with it – only to quite naturally not stick with it. Words, words, endless seas of words poured out and out, punctuation spilling and splashing onto the floor. Never mind, edit number twenty-six will find that mistake and all will be well. Readers? Who cares, we are living our lives in the only way we really know how: silently out loud, mentally at full volume, fingers going clack, clack, clack. Does any of it mean anything? Does any of anything mean anything?

We have Thomas Nagel to thank for pointing out that, among many other penetrating observations, although it is true (and somewhat unremarkable) that nothing we do today will matter in the far future, so too nothing that will actually matter in the far future matters today. We are here today, all we have is today, cursedly-blessedly awake and aware in it, the only true reality possible: ever-now. In particular, Nagel goes on, it makes no difference to us today that in the far future nothing we do today will matter.* Is this not one of the most liberating revelations imaginable? Cutting all cords to the future opens up life as it is lived like nothing else can. This moment now, all these flitting dust motes, is the only attainable surety one can ever face and the meaning of it, the matter of it, is too just here and just yes. Yes to its being, yes to my being, yes to being. The question of how to fill the time has been answered, the means determined, and the outcome – pffft, fate will wield its will and not a thread of it is of any concern. The sun rises and the sun sets. The clock bangs out its rhythm. I am hunched over a keyboard. There is nothing behind any of this. And yet, there is everything. Eyes open.

 

*Nagel’s piece where these thoughts appear was originally published as a journal article titled, “The Absurd”, in the Journal of Philosophy, 68:20 (2003), 716-727, and then later reprinted in David Benatar’s (ed.) Life, Death, and Meaning (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 29-40.

 

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There is Nothing Left to Write

The ideas for the system of governance that I created and outlined in Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies are ones that go back to my high school days. I was very political at the time (not so much anymore), highly critical of democracies and their posturing (still am), and convinced that there must be a better way of doing things (again, still am). I remember writing a long essay on the topic on our old word processor (remember those?) and pushing it on a friend of mine whose opinions I respected, his comments being that he thought my analysis was right on but that my solution wouldn’t work. On that, who’s to say without trying? But I digress, for the point I wish to make here is that a few years later in university while reading Plato’s Republic I realized that my ideas were not nearly as original as I had initially assumed they were. My system is not Plato’s, and his is patently not mine (no one can really hold a candle to Plato), but the similarities are there and enough so that comparisons and cross-discussability are both possible. That old “It’s been done before” chestnut we all love to hear.

Has it all been done before? Qohelet thought so in the first millennium BCE; he was right then and he’s still right now. At this point in human history, and given the limitations in imagination we face due to the prescribed circumstances and milieus within which we live and therefore necessarily out of which we think (and speak and write), absolute originality is probably an impossibility, or anyway near enough to practically be one. Our minds are cloistered, and there is no escaping this fact of existence. Yet we write, and as we should for even within “It’s been done before” there is much room for creativity. It might be thought that I am contradicting myself here given my immediately preceding comments on originality, but creativity is not originality, and doing something in a unique way – based on one’s unique voice, experiences, life – is almost as inevitable as writing out of the cultural Zeitgeist one finds oneself immersed in, and for the same reasons. Were any of us to attempt a rewrite, dedication, riff, or updated version of X first done by Y in the year Z we would do it differently, and thereby express our creativity. In that there is a measure of originality bestowed, there’s no doubt about that, but it should be clear enough that assertions of pure originality would not hold water.

There is, finally, one more aspect to consider: The activities we engage in are meaning-making for us as individuals, they provide the foundation for a life lived, giving it also a particular structure and acting to shape the contours of the days one has on this good Earth. That essay I wrote in high school that only one person ever read and who didn’t have much to say on it? That was manifestly worth the investment I made in terms of both time and energy (and paper, ribbon ink, and electricity). Even if the thoughts hadn’t stayed with me over the years and been re-formed, transformed, into a much fuller accounting and placed within a book that runs the gamut of human being, the exercise would all the same have yielded value for the life and relationships I had then. Commonalities can always be found, but personally held and communicated values and the means by which they are articulated is something that only You – everyone of us “yous” – will ever be capable of, world without end. In thinking about some related themes in a post done about a year and a half ago, I put it that “we who write do not stand in the shadows of the greats but rather in their lineage.” I still agree with that, and still find every minute spent in writing as time extremely well used. Mind you, whether I would admit that when engrossed in a sweaty and frenzied keyboard-banging battle to find just the right words is another matter entirely.

 

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There is Nothing Left to Do

Forewarning and fair warning that this week’s post likely won’t apply much to our readers who are professional writers, in whatever fashion or form. Assuming, though, that even the hardiest of pros still writes some of the time out of love for the craft and the art there might yet be something in the following for everyone, we hobbyists and you blessed golden pencilers alike. If not, well, these musings won’t take up too much of your time, and who’s to say that all diversions are all bad all the time? Not me, not now. At any rate, let’s dive in.

Projects have a way of taking over, and as we who write on the side know there can be stretches when there is simply very little left to be taken over – not enough remains after a day’s long slog at X in order to Y because Z just won’t leave you alone. (Paul looked at the issue more or less from this angle a startling seven and a half years ago, and as far as I’m aware not much has changed since then.) Projects, however, also have a way of taking over that leaves resentment as the furthest thing from our minds, replaced instead by the pure joy of doing and of being so fully absorbed in the doing that all else oh-so-willingly drops away, blissfully released and forgotten – for the moment, at least. Sessions like that are the reason we still get out of bed in the morning, why we stubbornly cling to an activity as vastly unrewarding (in an external sense) as writing is, and stay as the impetus to not only see the thing through but also the next thing and the thing following that. Creativity, flow, story building, characters coming alive, the joys of conjuring up whole cosmoses from nothing but one’s silly, frilly head. If there’s food in your belly and a reasonable assurance of keeping it that way then writing, and its beautiful opportunities of expression, is one line dance we relish falling into step with. Don’t stop the music, not yet.

It does, of course, sooner or later have to stop. That can feel frustrating, that can feel maddening, particularly when everything is going well and all that we want to do is simply keep at it, keep typing, keep reflecting, keep producing. In those instants when the real world with its malicious clock opens its maw and bares its gleaming sharp demands at us what is the writer forced to live in two spheres to do? How to cope? How to remain at peace when want conflicts so severely with need? Perspective, I think, is our only salvation. We all wish that we were Italians in some near and/or possible future where a livable income is guaranteed and we stand free to pursue our chosen art with abandon, yet the vagaries of fate being what they are very few of us will fit that bill. Reality, destiny, all the goods and bads of it, all the ups and downs. Salvation? Just this: we are already saved, we are already there, because for us, for we who write only and ever out of love as the money-chains that bind us have been forged elsewhere, there is nothing left to do. There are no deadlines, no demands, no risks of missing payments or deferrals. We write at our leisure and can continue to do so ad infinitum for to us it is purely and simply only that – leisure, nothing more and nothing less. Two words today, ten tomorrow, three thousand the day after tomorrow. None of it makes a lick of difference in any sense except in how it makes us feel. Once that is realized, once that is embraced, the emotion itself smooths out, tranquilizes, relaxes and folds into a happy medium of “everything is fine”. My writing is first and foremost for me, a part of the person I am and the manner of being I’ve chosen. For you too, I think, and in that we have given ourselves a most wonderful gift: an avocation that, like any good one, is as challenging as it is allowed to be – all things considered and all constraints taken into account. No pressure, just pleasure.

 

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You are not Your Work

In last week’s post we looked at some ideas of image, identity, and the importance and impact of labels and claims to labels. It can take a lot of courage, a lot of gumption, to call oneself a writer when all there is to show for the efforts put in are the drops of blood on your keyboard and the frayed hopes that still hang pinned to your bedroom wall. The mantle is there to be enrobed though, and the struggle we know and feel is hardly a new one. This week, then, we’ll connect those notions to the work itself.

There are two sides to this coin (as with all coins – an odd saying, a linguistic relic, to be sure): obscurity and misunderstanding. What is furthermore interesting about this situation is the way these two blur. Friedrich Nietzsche provides a nice example of both as he was largely ignored during his own lifetime (self-pubbing, as was the norm given printing methods and the publishing industry at the time (and will become the norm again I’d wager given current trajectories), his letters reveal deep and frequent complaints about his perception that his books simply weren’t wanted), and at times courted being misread by purposely using obscurities and subterfuges. This is especially clear in his many references to “masks” found in Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (1886), which oddly enough was written to be a more systematic – and hence clearer, one would think – portrayal of the concepts brought to life in his immediately preceding Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None (1883-1885; Part Four was added much later). No one, of course, would call Nietzsche obscure now, although he is probably still largely misunderstood. Martin Buber’s books, especially I and Thou, followed a similar trajectory but in his case I think the misunderstandings are a result of pure difficulty of prose rather than any employment of literary masks. In our own times we can perhaps point to Slavoj Žižek, who has yet been fortunate enough to see the world’s wheel turn on his life’s oeuvre while he is still able to enjoy it. For many that wheel never turns.

Say though that it does, that one finds oneself the recipient of attention, of criticism and critiques, and that it is negative, unrepresentative, inaccurate – those are barbs that can hurt, personally and deeply. What is most important to keep in mind for all of us who create, I think, is that whatever “we” are or take ourselves to be, there is a line to be drawn between that and what we produce. Our works naturally do reflect our personhoods in being the results of what we do, but the step from there to who we are is a very large one however easy it is to overlook. To be read is a great privilege, especially in these times of internet-driven gleeful imbecility and ten-second attention spans, yet the fact remains that even those who do read will often read superficially, and this is perhaps no more the case than amongst mainstream voices who assume that everyone is or wants to be mainstream too. Consider, for another historical example, the 18th century composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, who hid revolutionary musical techniques within standardized styles and was nevertheless still attacked for being too different – and then for being too establishment. There is no pleasing everyone, and much of the time, it can seem, there is no pleasing anyone. This is not a bitter pill to swallow though for it need not be swallowed at all. I am who I take myself to be, and what I have made is what I have made – no more and no less. It is not “me” unless I choose to invest self-defining and self-shaping elements into it, and this is even more so the case with fiction wherein the voices speak (at least ostensibly) for themselves and their own outlooks, goals, motivations, what have you. To confuse a writer with their characters, whether first person or third, is a silly and childish mistake to make despite its unfortunate commonness. We who create know better, although it is sometimes worth reminding ourselves of that. Here’s to remembering, and to the resolve to keep at it.

 

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Self-image and Writing

Paul’s recently linked (via our Twitter account) BBC article on Gabriel García Márquez’s famous novel was interesting not just for the human aspect side to the story (carrying the characters mentally with him for so long, a sudden epiphany, an eight month burst of creative fervor, etc.) but for what was claimed about the novel’s effects. It is alleged to have reshaped all of Latin America, a tremendous, astounding result – yet how? Not through anything direct, not by fomenting the kind of on-the-street activism that leaflets used to and that mobile-based social media use sometimes still does, but rather through the more subtle renewal, the re-imagining, of the consciously held self-images and awareness that Latin Americans had of themselves. The novel, for all of those who read it, allowed readers to re-think the background out of which their own lives have unfolded, and in that to re-create their place and their selves. These are matters of deeply identitarian import, and they are at the core of human be-ing, of how any human is in the world. Existence, defining existence, the ego, “me”, that ever elusive and ever changing answer to, “Who are you?” Or better yet, “Who am I?”

This is the real potency of fiction, and it needn’t come in the form of a paperback although naturally we who write books are very grateful when it does. (Could it still? Who would read it? Frightening queries in this drippingly digital age…) An idea, any idea, can extend its influence into the furthest reaches of the psyche of its carrier via how it shapes the perceptions and outlook of the person involved. The conceptual determines the perceptual, the beliefs held (and possibly held quite dearly) structure, form, twist, warp, straighten, curly-cue, transform every morsel of input both sensual and mental through the resulting judgments made to all that external data: the famed perspectivism of continental philosophy, stretching in a straight line from Nietzsche to the existentialists to the phenomenologists. (On that and its relation to writing see a couple of posts from earlier this year here and, to a slightly lesser degree, here.) One Hundred Years of Solitude bequeathed readers with a chance for a new “me”, and from that whole other worlds suddenly opened up, possibilities blossomed. If we are products of our pasts – individually, of course, but collectively too – then what happens when that past changes? Presto bang-o! The Aladdin theme song rips through the speakers in your head and all the colors before you take on a new hue. That is power indeed (and schmaltz, given the song choice).

I think this same notion can also be applied in the opposite direction, to you as writer from you as writer. Many of us, maybe especially when it comes to self-pubbing, struggle with how we understand ourselves as “writers”. Yes, we write, sure, but without that outside acknowledgement, without those kudos (in whatever form) from somebody other than ourselves it can be hard to really take the label seriously. And without that label what have you got? An author supposedly in the making? A hobby scribbler? An up and comer? A not yet? A never was? A won’t be? That’s a lonely place, a hard place, a painful place. We needn’t though, I think, ever find ourselves there. Maybe in the end it is that simple, it is the conceptual-perceptual, maybe the mere(!) embrace of the title is enough, that one tiny step all that is necessary to jolt us with the confidence to keep at what we love because we love it. Does that make it so? Does claiming to be the world’s strongest man put you in the running for the actual championship belt? “Don’t be fatuous, Jeffrey” – except that in this case what is sought is not dependent on any group or officialdom, what is sought is rather the self-acknowledgement of one’s own pursuits and abilities, both of which can, should, and must be worked on throughout a life. If they are, I would suggest, then there is very little difference between the person who says she’s a writer and the person of whom X says she’s a writer. Self-image, and may it be so.

 

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A Laser or a Searchlight?

Sometimes it flows out effortlessly, on and on and on, a wondrous river of sentences, a current of words, and sometimes – well, sometimes it just doesn’t. You know what I mean. Getting started on a new project of whatever length can either be the easiest and most instinctive thing in the world or it can be the worst exercise in pulling teeth. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground, and moreover whichever path it takes doesn’t seem at all related to one’s feelings, plans, organization, or motivation. Even the muse’s smiling or frowning doesn’t appear particularly related. Fingers race across the keyboard or they sit there like petulant cats, giving you the evil eye and making it clear to all and sundry that they’ll do what they please and nothing else, thank you very much. Discipline: we know we need it, but even when we have it that is no guarantee for the process clicking. What to do? Stick it out? Move on to something else with an idea to come back later? Both? Neither?

There’s a lot to be said for focus, for concentration, for stubbornly keeping at it no matter what, for taking a work by the horns and not letting go. With any long-term and major project surely this is a good idea, but life – to paraphrase John Lennon – very often has other plans. And when it does? A bit of dabbling might be in order, a bit of winding down those little miscellaneous thises and thats which somehow seem to pile up and cry out for attention now and then, regardless of whether or not they’ve actually been forgotten. Personally I find a widespread approach to writing like this inevitable. There are far too many demands in far too many areas to be able to really sit down and just “give it” to one’s favored work in progress, especially when a day job is involved. Still, there is certainly a sense in which I would like to do just that as few things in writing are as satisfying as getting a good chunk done towards completing a really major, meaty, juicy slice of text. Racing to that “The End”, rockets strapped on; as an author that’s when you really feel alive, that’s when you really feel like you’re doing what comes best, what comes most naturally. “Naturally” at the best of times, anyway.

But are those really the best of times? Exclusivity – if possible – can just as easily lead to stagnation as it can to precision, clarity, and beauty. The mind needs stimuli, the creative mind more than most, and if the surrounding environment isn’t providing much there might not be any other option than to delve within, and in that internal spelunking to find and haul out what was missing. The way to do that, of course, is to turn off the laser and switch on the searchlight. Whip out a short story, jot down a poem, reel off an argumentative essay, whatever comes first and best is probably what the doctor is ordering, and then, medicine taken, the piece you’d prefer to be penning might just be able to actually progress.

Is this a cure for writer’s block? I don’t think so, and that’s certainly not what I’m trying to suggest with all of these heavily mixed metaphors. Rather I think that writing, perhaps most like music, is one of those arts that both rewards and punishes single-minded dedication. When is such called for and when isn’t it? When will it help your main work and when will it hinder it? Inserting blemishes, frustrations, and ever more painful edits down the road? Who’s to know, and how? Therein lies the mystery of creation, with all questions unanswerable. What to do? Do, I suppose, simply let go, stay open, see what happens. At least with writing the paint will never completely dry.

 

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Dumping Your Detritus

A coming of age story set in Canada’s far north. A reporter who becomes embroiled in political intrigue and responds by having a monkey’s tail surgically attached to his lower spine. A depressed would-be something who struggles through his days making a living writing pornography scripts. A fully completed graphic novel that includes zero illustrations. False starts, dead stories, paths not taken, work abandoned. Flotsam and jetsam.

The above list are just a few of the projects that I’ve let go with varying degrees of emotional commitment involved and to differing judgments of regret and relief. Sometimes things just don’t work out, and sometimes it’s very good that they don’t. About two years ago I wrote a post called “Renewal, or Resurrection?” that also considered work that was thought lost, gone, out of sight and out of mind, looking at the issue from two distinct angles: the first about a series of translations that simply got tucked away and then fortuitously published a quarter-century later when world circumstances happened to become such that they were suddenly in demand, and the second about a book that was frankly determined not to be good enough and was therefore better off dead (there’s some nostalgia for you). That previous post offered – or could be interpreted as offering – the happy notion that one never knows, that something might occur and that all those burned pages might magically re-integrate. Maybe, but that’s been said (rather, written) already and so in this post we’ll look elsewhere. And that “elsewhere” is – you guessed it – the bin.

It takes courage to admit that a project isn’t working out or is no longer worth what is required to be put in. Life, it’s true, can seem like a chore, it can feel like an endless demand of time that needs to be filled in some manner, and there is no doubt that a literary undertaking will eat up gobbles of time, easily disappearing whole days, weeks, months, years. Yet surely if one is only after idling away the moments that awareness thrusts upon us there are better ways of doing it than by plugging away mercilessly at a keyboard when all interest has evaporated and any long-term plans have shifted or been thrust aside. One needn’t necessarily hit the old “delete” button, but “close file” might in fact be just what is called for. How to decide on that? Brutal, unflinching self assessment, and maybe too a trustworthy second opinion. Is this a keeper? Why? How? No? Well my friend, I’m afraid it’s a case of catch and release. And then?

Then fate unfolds. The days spin on and the question marks keep presenting themselves. Back to it? Another way? Transformation? Regeneration? A final wave goodbye? No matter how things fall out what was put in has become a part of the personal past that we all call “my writing”. Good or bad, lively or dull, engaged and engaging or left aside and unloved: steps on the way. “On the way to what?” of course being the most open query there is, but soon or sooner every writer will be able to answer that. Looking back on where she’s been from where she is now, perspective is the most any of us can ask for. There might be pride in that, even joy, but then there might also be nothing but a shrug of the shoulders. Our false starts – if we can call them that – will nevertheless be a part of our stories, our lived stories, in the book that our parents christened with all of their hopes and dreams much as we do with our texts, eyes filled with the same mixture of love and worry. Letting go can be hard, yes, but holding on could be much worse.

 

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Rehabilitating Nihilism

Nihilism is one of those terms that has lost its niche, a word whose associative network of concepts and symbolisms has gone adrift and failed to find a new mooring. In the popular imagination it used to be tightly aligned with anarchy, with revolutionary fervor, with a rejection of the entire established order of things, and its utterance brought to mind scary-sounding and foreign names like “Bakunin”, in turn followed by a wild-eyed visage framed with flowing and unkempt hair pressing in on one’s mind. Call the authorities! Give me security! Keep me safe from these ruffians! (Photos of the man actually show a very calm and kind face, but he did have a great head of hair.) Yet then nihilism slipped and stumbled, anarchy moved on and discovered it never needed nihilism, from the start the two didn’t actually fit. Anarchy had its transcendence, its telos, but nihilism? It had so much of nothing that it didn’t even know what it had. And who needs nothing? Who fights for an abyss? Who champions a zero? Nihilism for a time was forgotten; anyway there was far too much else to do.

The existentialists, some phenomenologists, and a certain set of German theologians then re-discovered it, dusted it off and turned it over, working out its hidden nuances and potentialities. This meaninglessness could mean something, they thought, this idea might have some worth, some merit, some saving grace. It might even be a saving grace. No one could have foreseen that. (Except of course Nietzsche; possibly – probably – Kierkegaard.) Nihilism was something to go through, a kind of obstacle course for the spirit from which one emerged, if one emerged at all, expressly stronger and more capable, more fully oneself and much less a product of the time and place you screamed your way into at birth. (A tangent: How appropriate is the fact that we greet life by coming into it with a wail?)

Among artists we writers must be the most anti-social lot, the most inwardly gazing, the most internally obsessed. Locked up in our heads and keeping likely far too much to ourselves we observe – creepily, stalkingly; menacingly? – the world around us and then put something onto paper for reasons that even if known cannot really be fathomed in any kind of rational sense. (Leaving out writing purely for pay, naturally. Bread on the table makes a lot of rational sense.) In the end life can seem merely a passing of the time, especially if one considers each of us separately and takes individual pursuits as non-contributory. There might be much more at work though, and all of our little nonsenses may in fact be building towards something larger, something emergent. That isn’t a conclusion you can just be handed however, it needs to be felt to really be embraced, and the viewpoint behind it needs a nudge to get it going. That nudge is nihilism.

We write about lives, we craft stories wherein this happens to that person and they react with such and such. Or we pen essays and arguments that explore the human condition, but it all still boils down to this happening to that person and the reaction of such and such. Human beings, really every living creature and the entire interlocked and unfolding cosmos, are exemplars of repetition par excellence. Keeping one’s eyes locked on one’s own life and its winding trajectory quickly engenders a deadening pointlessness, and it’s no wonder the answer to this has so often been a pining for a better world elsewhere, either postmortem or post-revolution or post-fill-in-the-blank. We’ve got to get there! But then nihilism grabs you by the shoulders and your mind snaps back to – what?

Perspective, a shifted world, a climb up the ladder, a stepping out of the well and into the light. Or the reverse; darkness can after all be its own luminosity. Real writing needs hard thinking, and that is often neither easy nor pleasant. The experience of and the wrestling with nihilism offers a tour de force down this path, but it certainly isn’t for everyone. Of any group of people though, I’d wager that writers stand to benefit the most from it. We are reflective by nature and therefore suited to the battle ahead, pre-oriented to find our way. What might appear on the other side is admittedly unpredictable, and we could well ruin ourselves and/or our art in the process, but transformation requires risk, and there is no resurrection without first hanging oneself Odin-like on the tree. The story goes that after nine days he looked down and found the runes – can we?

 

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Seriousness

Artists, speaking generally and fairly stereotypically, tend to view their creative works in the long term. At least, this is the case amongst the people I’ve interacted with, and especially so for writers. Legacy is an issue for many, and the thought of their efforts “standing the test of time” or “being remembered” or remaining as a “gift to the ages” or as the proof of “leaving my mark on the world” is a major motivator. Such ideas are natural, perhaps, and it might be that any creature with a sufficiently developed sense of ego will tend towards them, but in the end this type of concern must be seen for what it is: self-defeating. Ironically so, of course, given that the core concern here is not the work per se but the self who formed the work. In many ways we humans are messed up animals. Beautifully tragic might be the positive spin, cripplingly self-obsessed the negative. Even our brightest stars can be subject to this trait (or failing, depending on how charitable one wishes to be), as a biography of Kurt Vonnegut revealed in its portrayal of a man who rather bitterly and tellingly asked the biographer to look up his name in a dictionary and, not finding it, to then look up Jack Kerouac’s, which was listed. “How about that?” Vonnegut asks.

We are ever so serious, and we take ourselves that way, but not only ourselves. We also take our work as reflections of our selves, and our work’s worth (judged externally or internally) as indicative of our own worth as people, as living beings with all of our many complexities. Could there possibly be a more potent recipe for misery than this? It’s just asking for trouble, particularly in the case of outside determinations as surely reception is one area beyond anyone’s control – even a shred of control. The best that could be done would be to increase one’s chances by essentially playing the lottery as many times as possible and hoping to sooner or later hit on a winner. Fate, it spins its thread (or, truer to the cultural roots invoked here, The Fates, they spin their thread), and on its fibers our lives dance and twist, rising and falling inexorably as we struggle to make some sense of it all. But I think there is sense to be had – when it comes to one’s work anyway – some sense and some purpose, although first we’ve got to get over ourselves, get over our selves.

Finitude: embrace it. The lesson of the existentialists, the smirk and the wink at absurdity. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy” writes Camus, and indeed we must, for if we don’t then we find ourselves stuck in the same rut as that poor hero. If it is, in the end, all a rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again, all a repetitive straining that gains nothing of any significance or lasting value, then what’s the point? Certainly not chasing fame, certainly not daydreaming of immortality. We will be forgotten, and everything we’ve produced will wilt and fade, even if it does outlast our physical bodies to some degree and even if it does outlast our physical bodies to a great degree (we are, after all, still talking about Shakespeare – although will we still in a thousand years? Ten thousand?). Yet now we are alive and we are making something with our being alive – that is a wonder. The process, the act, the experience, the journey of it; who could ask for more? Who could expect more – why and how wisely?

For life itself and so for the labors of life. The fruits of our efforts are not in what they might or might not bring, rather they are in the efforts themselves, they are the efforts themselves. We lighten up! We sit to write with a sloppy grin on our faces for in all the wide world we have this, now: a keyboard, a typewriter, a pencil and a pad, an idea and a brain and a hand or two that can tell it. What a stunningly generous gift we have received, what a blessing it is to be breathing and to be capable of that to which we choose to put ourselves. There is no call for the frowning futurist here, only the silly person of the moment, the shouting and singing presentist twirling out a Dionysian jig and tossing afar her words in freedom and abandon. Come what may, she says, today I create, today I do.

 

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Story seeds, Planning, and Intuition

It’s happening again. The bug, the itch, the fever: you know what I mean. An idea has taken root, a seed has been planted, a tiny sliver of green has sprouted. A writing project, another one. Am I mad? I must be, I’ve only hardly finished my last and here I am jotting down notes and juggling ideas for another one. What is wrong with me?

The same, I’d wager, that’s wrong with you. Writing, it gets under the skin, it’s in the blood, the DNA, whatever it is if it’s a part of you then – for better or for worse – it’s a part of you. There’s no doubt that being struck by a concept, a storyline, an intriguing character, and/or all of the above, carries with it a great deal of excitement. This time of early planning is probably the most enjoyable part of the whole process, really, for as we all know the distance from first idea to final book is a vast stretch, and along that path the horizon always seems to be shrinking further and further away. Little lies between here and there but pain and suffering; but oh the sweetness of these instants now. We dare to savor them.

Each of us will no doubt approach this “seeding” phase differently, depending both on the type of project in mind and on personal nuances related to writing and working habits. For myself I like to keep any initial planning fairly loose – doodles or sketches more than anything else – in order to give my preconscious mind, my intuitive brain, time to mull everything over. I avoid setting any deadlines, and most definitely any defined starting and ending dates, as experience has taught me that such are almost never met and tend to create far more stress than is either necessary or helpful. And after all, if this half daydreaming, half structural framing period is the most fun then why not let it stretch itself out? See where it goes, see where your heart takes it before it really takes it as the characters begin their interactive dances, their confrontations, collaborations, highs and lows and all that passes between.

Here once more is where I think intuition demonstrates its strength. The non-rational, non-actively engaged mind is able to process many millions more pieces of data than the rational mind is (this has to do partially with the confines of the working memory; there is quite a bit of very interesting research in this area in the fields of psychology and cognitive science), the only catch being that access to it is limited to what bubbles up into one’s awareness. That is, we cannot rationally choose what our non-rational (preconscious) mind will deliver to us, we simply take it once it has been given and then, if we are sufficiently thoughtful, chew it over a bit before deciding or acting on it. What this potentially means for the early stages of a writing project is that one allows one’s inner machinery to chug along on its own, only putting in those core kernels, those seeds, and then more or less waiting to see what happens. Although the preceding might be one of the least romantic ways of describing the creative process I think that for what it’s worth that essentially hits the nail on the head. On top of that, of course, is the added factor that the initial idea itself, the originary germination (to put it needlessly technically), is anyway almost certainly a product of that selfsame procedure. For me, for this time, it all started on my walk to catch the tram to work in the morning when I happened to spot something while traversing an overpass. What was it? Well, you’ll have to wait for the book to come out… Wink!

Our projects, they define us to a certain extent, certainly they give shape and meaning, and likely purpose, to our days. They come and go and come again, and there are times when we abandon them, just as there are times when we slog through no matter how hard the going gets. Whether or not a story is worth telling is probably something that will reveal itself as it is being told – at least to its writer, but then no one else may agree with said writer’s verdict. Nevertheless, when a seed is in the soil, when a plan is in the works, when the inner heart is engaged in doing what it does best, those are moments to cherish, and not just because they cannot last.

 

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