Which sounds like something my heroine Evvie Sparrow would be up to. In my case – conventions. I just returned from the entirely delightful 9 Worlds Geekfest, where I was on a panel on Epic Fantasy in the effulgent company of Elizabeth Bear, Rebecca Levene and Scott Lynch, moderated by the ever-patient Den Patrick, and where I otherwise spent possibly too much time chatting in the bar. I am off to Worldcon tomorrow, where I will be running writing workshops with the fabulous Sarah Ellender, taking part in the pirate programme (yaarr!) run by the splendiferous David Gullen, helping out at the T Party Writers critique workshop…and possibly spending a few minutes in the bar. Oh, yes, and getting to some events and panels, I hope. And bare minutes after that I’ll be heading off to Eurocon, where I am not booked to do anything at all except be a punter, which will be slightly more relaxing. I will of course not be spending any time in the bar. At some point I shall, however, be trying to get some writing done, as I got far too many ideas at 9Worlds and would really like to grab some of them before they get away. After that, I shall probably fall over for a bit, before going to Bristolcon in October…
I am delighted to announce that the lovely Solaris Books have commissioned Sparrow Falling, a sequel to my steampunk novel Shanghai Sparrow – (read an extract here). Sparrow Falling is due out in summer 2015.
Shanghai Sparrow has been getting some nice reviews, too:
“I’ve hardly read any steampunk, but if they’re all like this, I think I need to change that, fast.” DRUNKEN DRAGON REVIEWS
“Jumping between Victorian England and a fantastical China with Fae thrown in for good measure. Result: an entertaining plot, a feisty, determined heroine and a good blending of fantasy and social history; all in all a great read and one I’ll be very likely to re-read too.” TERRYTALK
“…a rip-roarin’ rollickin’ adventure that had me flying through the pages. In fact, two chapters from the end, I actually put the book down, and started reading something else. Because I didn’t want it to end. I so did not want to come back to the book to find out what happened, because I couldn’t bear the thought of finishing it.” TANGLED BOOKMARKS
So, generally, a pretty good few weeks…apart from hearing about the deaths of Clive Wolfe of the NSDF, a man of immense passion and commitment, whose work had huge positive effects for so many people, gave me some of the maddest and most enjoyable weeks of my life and brought me some of my longest-standing friendships, and of Rik Mayall, who I never met but who was cool and talented and funny. Those, yeah, not so good.
Guest blog for Jacey Bedford: http://jaceybedford.wordpress.com/2014/05/20/guest-blog-2-gaie-sebold-how-not-to-write-a-steampunk-novel/
Where she allows me to witter on about my very messy writing process on Shanghai Sparrow in her otherwise elegant abode.
You know what? Sometimes this sucks. Sometimes I suck. Sometimes trying to get one single measly word on the damn page feels like trying to push an articulated lorry uphill, in the rain, with the handbrake on.
Why? Why is it so hard?
Sometimes the reasons are obvious.
Real life worries screw with the concentration. Occasionally creative work can be an escape from them – but it can be really hard to find the appropriate mindset when financial or health or relationship troubles are clawing and cawing and crapping all over your brain like a flock of particularly unpleasant crows. There are means to cope with this. Writing lists of things you can do to deal with your troubles may reassure your brain that you are doing something. Actually doing one small thing, even if it’s just making one appointment, writing one email or putting a stamp on one envelope may put the Anxiety Bear to sleep for a bit.
Your health can interfere with your ability to work. This is, or should be, really obvious. If you’re in pain, or ill, or simply exhausted, it’s harder to concentrate. This is not a sign of moral weakness. If it’s a long term problem, again, taking a small step towards dealing with it can help – exploring different methods of pain control or new therapies. Finding a new position to work in that’s less strenuous, or only working for very short periods. If it’s a short term problem or a temporary worsening of a chronic condition, sometimes all you can do is just go to bed and look after yourself until you feel better, instead of trying to drive yourself on when you’re in no state to do so – you may just end up starting to hate the work, because you’re trying to push yourself to do it when you feel vile, and that’s a good way for it to stop being a joy and start being a chore. Don’t treat yourself the way a bad boss would – take a break when you need it.
Sometimes, though, the work is the problem. Is this the project I should be working on? Should I be doing something else? Should I be doing this project differently, faster, slower, better?
Maybe. If you’re struggling with the work itself, there’s often a reason – and it is not that you’re rubbish, or hopeless.
Maybe this isn’t the project you should be working on. Maybe you’ve chosen something for reasons that have less to do with your personal creative needs than with external pressures, or you’re still working on a project you started when you were in a different life situation or frame of mind and it no longer speaks to you. If you’re not under contract, then rethink. Are you trying to do something that doesn’t truly interest or excite you? Well, if no-one’s paying you, why?
If someone is paying you, that’s different, of course. If you’re under contract, you’re going to have to finish anyway. In either case, the following might help.
Maybe you need to come at it from a different angle. Maybe it needs to go in a different direction, or have a different viewpoint, or frame, or voice. Sometimes changing one thing – who the protagonist is, or their profession, or gender, changing the point at which you start the story or the setting or the tone – can be what you need. Maybe the protagonist is the cook, not the count. Maybe it’s a tragedy, not a comedy. Maybe it’s set in Moldavia and it should be set in the Midlands.
Sometimes you start again with a different approach and there’s an almost audible ‘click’ and you hear the muse going, ‘Thank you, fi-nally’ as she rolls up her sleeves and gets on with it. (That may just be my muse, mind. She can be bratty.). I’m really not sure how to translate this to other arts than writing – different media? Different colours? Different forms, starting points, background? All I can really suggest is that you change just one thing to start with, and see what happens.
And sometimes, you just need to put your head down and plough on. If you’ve already started the same project six different ways, it’s probably time to pick one version and stick with it. If you’ve started six different projects and haven’t finished any of them, then it’s definitely time to pick one and stick with it. Because those can be signs that the problem isn’t with doing the work but with finishing.
Finishing is scary. Finishing has implications. You may not be thinking about them consciously, but your subconscious may have a whole bunch of them all lined up, quivering and pacing and chewing their nails. Criticism. Judgement. Failure. Hatred. Career Implosion. Expulsion from Civilised Society and Residence in a Cardboard Box…(the downside of an active imagination can be, alas, one that’s as hyperactive as a toddler mainlining triple espressos).
Unless you are extraordinarily offensive or really, intensely, improbably unlucky, it is unlikely in the farthest extreme that one project will doom your career or result in your entire life falling apart around your ears. One project is only one project. Yes, this one might fail, might not be what you hoped, might turn off people you wanted to like it or, ye gods, attract people you would really rather it didn’t.
It’s one project. One project is not the Totality of Your Creative Self, it does not say everything about who you are as a human being or indicate the entire impact of your existence upon the multiverse.
It’s just one step in your creative journey. And it might, just might, be a really good one – a joy, a breakthrough, the one that gets you to the next stage, whatever that is for you.
Deal with what you can of the Life Stuff. Rest if you need to. Try different projects, different approaches. Try to see finishing as a joy, not a threat.
And get that one goddamned word, or brushstroke, or whatever, on the page. The next one is almost always easier.
Recently I found myself drawn to old-fashioned cooking. Lamb stew made from the leftover roast, with celery and pearl barley. I even made bread pudding. I don’t normally do puddings, we just don’t eat them often enough for it to be worth it – but there was the remains of last week’s loaf, and suddenly I wanted bread pudding. Not because I feel compelled to use up every last scrap of food but because…I just wanted it.
I wanted those smells. The smells of my mother’s kitchen.
And I realised that it was coming up to the anniversary of my mother’s death.
I’m not saying these things are necessarily connected, but it’s not unlikely that they are. The approaching anniversary of a death can manifest in strange ways. A vague restlessness or depression, a desire to get away from old places or to revisit them. And sometimes a longing for the things we remember, like the milky-spice smell of bread pudding.
And what does this have to do with creativity?
Cooking is creative, or can be. And for me, it’s a creativity that is generally without pressure, without any of the anxieties that are tied to writing. It has its frustrations and pitfalls but they are minor, temporary, occasionally amusing, seldom more than mildly annoying at worst.
For a start, cooking is not my job. No-one is paying me to do it – so if I get it wrong, I’m not going to be fired. If it’s inedible, we’ll shove a pizza in the oven or my Dearly Beloved will make one of his own excellent dishes.
And mainly, and perhaps most significantly, I don’t expect great things of myself. I haven’t gone through my entire life thinking of myself as a ‘chef’ the way I’ve thought of myself, from the age of nine or so, as a ‘writer’. If a dish, especially a new one, turns out right, I’m delighted, and usually slightly surprised.
It is very valuable to have creative aspects in your life that are not tied to your sense of self-worth, and that are not monetised. Apart from the pleasure and relaxation they give just of themselves, I believe the sense of joy and achievement also feeds back into other creative work. It helps you relax, and remember why this stuff was supposed to be fun.
And there are lessons to be learned, specifically, from cooking.
From my mother I learned many of the basics, and a handful of dishes that I could do without thinking too hard. But for years they never had quite the flavour they had at her hands – generally because I didn’t take enough trouble. I didn’t add the extra touches, do the specific little things that deepened and rounded out the flavour.
I’ve learned that these little touches matter. And that very definitely applies to other forms of creativity. It’s worth taking the trouble to get the proportions right, to fry this before adding that, to remember the shake of Cayenne in the Bolognese if you want it to taste like your mum’s. Without those touches, you may have something edible – but you won’t have that dish. It won’t have the richness.
If you reach for the first metaphor that happens to be to hand instead of searching for the absolutely right one, the one that intensifies the atmosphere of your scene or gives insight into the thought-process of the character; if you have your character come out with what you or a random work colleague or Action Hero Type A might say, instead of thinking about exactly what words that person would use under those specific circumstances, then you’re throwing something together, it’s fast food. Bland, unsubtle, exactly like every other burger.
And sometimes you have to add your own touches. My mum didn’t put a splash of red wine in her Bolognese sauce, I do. There are things I learned from writers I admire that I do differently, because I want to tell my story, my way, not theirs. This, too, is something you learn – and learn by doing. I didn’t know whether a splash of wine in the Bolognese was going to work until I tried it – and I didn’t know how much works best until I tried it several times.
To return to the origin of this post – creativity can be sparked by unexpected things, by things you’re not aware of. Stuff bubbles up from the subconscious and the mostly-forgotten.
I wasn’t aware, when I wanted to make bread pudding, that I was thinking of my mother’s death, but I was – and of her life. And I might have got a little weepy as the smell of bread pudding spread through the kitchen – but it turned out to be a pretty damn good pudding. Not only that, in the process of making it, I had some thoughts about the relationship of a character with her mother, and about the social standing of cooks in the society I’m creating.
Creativity feeds creativity. You never know where ideas may come from, so be open to them. And taking trouble is generally worth it – even when you’re doing it for fun.
There is a lot of noise out there. All the time. Sometimes it is stressful, unpleasant noise – sometimes it is entertaining noise.
The problem is, it’s noise.
And creativity often requires silence.
This silence doesn’t have to be actual silence – I’m not suggesting you have to lock yourself in a soundproofed cell. For some people music is an essential part of their creative space. For others, white noise, natural sounds, or the traffic going by outside can all help create the necessary headspace.
For actual aural noise which causes distraction, I suggest investing in noise-cancelling headphones (or nicking your partner’s, as I did).
But that’s not the same as noise. Noise is the stuff that batters at the creative space. The sly distracting imps of the internet. The awareness of the undone washing-up or the unanswered email. The nasty chittering anxieties of your own thoughts. Money worries, relationship worries, worries about your creative life – am I doing it right? Do I have a right to do it at all? Will I get anywhere? Will anyone notice? Why is Writer/Artist X doing so well when I’m not?
All of this is noise. Stuff. Some of it may be real, genuine stuff – stuff that you will have to deal with at some point – but you shouldn’t be trying to deal with it right now, because right now, you’re trying to get some work done.
So try to cut the noise.
There are a number of techniques for this. Meditation is one, and there are plenty of simple guided meditations available online, very cheap, or free. As one who has only recently begun to do it with any sort of regularity, I can recommend it – both for improved focus, and for reduced stress. It doesn’t necessarily block out those uncomfortable thoughts, but it can help you let them pass through your head without turning into a complete logjam in the way of your work.
It can help to make lists of the real-life things that need doing and tell yourself you’ll deal with it – after you’ve done some work. (If you want to try this, do it outside the time you’ve allotted yourself for the work – maybe the night before – because otherwise you’ll end up using your creative time for this).
The worries about creative work itself? That’s another post. Several other posts (including last week’s). But try and put them aside for now. Again, you might want to write these worries out – not now, not in your allotted creative time, but some other time – before or after you’re trying to work. Get them down on paper (or screen). It’s amazing how much being written out can weaken these monsters.
Programmes like Freedom or Self Restraint are useful cages to lock those internet imps in. Because do you really need to find out what’s going on in the latest Twitterstorm? Will that help your work, right now? No. It’s more likely to be upsetting or irritating, even if you don’t get drawn into it.
Do you need to see if anyone’s responded to your last Facebook post? Will that help you work? If they have, you may get drawn into responding to them, and then it’s a conversation, and then your creative time gets eaten. If they haven’t, you may (if you’re like me) start agonising about whether you said the wrong thing, or maybe everyone’s ignoring you, or thinks you’re boring…just, no. You do not need those thoughts in your creative space. So don’t let them in.
Do you need to keep up with the latest news or appalling human rights violation? Unless you’re a working journalist…no. Not right now.
And preferably not just before you’re about to try and work; there is interesting research suggesting that things that make us feel threatened – i.e. news of terrorist acts, miscarriages of justice or the latest grim thing humanity is doing to the planet – can trigger a response which pushes us towards things that comfort us or make us feel powerful, (snacking, for example, or shopping) but away from things we may already find stressful. Like doing creative work.
(On a side note, there is also research suggesting that looking at pictures of cute animals can help focus your concentration. Really. Something to do with sparkng a protective impulse which makes us more focussed. This does not translate as a license to search for new posts on Cute Overload every five minutes. I suggest a picture of something fuzzy in your workspace instead. And if your idea of cute is a cuddly Cthulhu, go for it).
Creative space isn’t just outside, it’s inside. And the more rubbish, i.e. noise, you can clear out of that space before you start working, even if all you’re doing is shutting it in a cupboard for later tidying, the easier you will find it to work.
First, a couple of warnings. One, this post contains the occasional rude word. If you are easily shocked by such, look away now. It contains rude words because I am discussing things about which I feel strongly, and because I use rude words to deal with them.
Two, this post is intended to help with creative self-confidence and productivity. And there is an innate problem for some of us with things that are intended to do this. Because such things, however rah-rah they are, however carefully couched in messages of support and encouragement, can end up making us feel worse.
Why? Easy. Here is all this help being offered, it all sounds so workable, and the person offering it is so nice about it, they’re really trying to help us and make us feel good. Everything we need is there, right in front of us, but then – we read it, and we don’t immediately become incredibly productive overnight! (Without even doing any of the exercises, visualisations, etc.) So we are obviously really bad people, so utterly entrenched and mired in our useless ways that we are beyond help or hope!
Of course, that’s bullshit.
That’s the Voices of Unreason with their whining chorus of self-destruction, they’ve just seized on the latest stick to beat you with. The Voices of Unreason are cunning and have no shame. They will use anything at all to keep you stuck.
Less than perfect at absolutely everything? “Loser!” They sneer. Decide that it’s better to do 100 words, or 50, than none at all, they’ll howl, ‘Pathetic!’ If you do 1000 words they’ll tell you it should have been 2000, or 4000, and you should have done it yesterday. In fact you should have written the entire novel by now, no, ten novels, and won at least six major awards, and in fact you should have done all this decades ago because now, “You’ve wasted your life so there’s no point trying!”
Creative blocks are often to do with part of your mind which has a huge investment in keeping you safe, and to this part of your mind ‘keeping you safe’ means, to quote Homer Simpson, ‘never try.’ If you don’t try it can’t go wrong. You can’t be exposed to ridicule or hatred or simple failure. Keep your head below the parapet and no-one will shoot at you.
Trouble is if you keep your head below the parapet forever, you’ll never find out if you could have won the war.
Whether or not these voices had their origins in protection, they’re not your friend now.
There are techniques to deal with the Voices of Unreason, and if their noise is overwhelming your life, then seeing a professional is a good option. (Oh, listen, here they go – “See a professional? Self-indulgent whiner! There’s nothing wrong with you that some self-discipline wouldn’t cure!” Because actually getting help when you need it is, according to the Voices of Unreason, bad and wrong. Just think of them as the sort of people who say, ‘Stop whinging and get some fresh air’ to someone with pneumonia – or a broken leg).
However. Right now, you’d just like a chance to get on with it, without everything you try to do to help yourself turning into another stick for the Voices of Unreason to beat you with.
They are nasty. You are allowed, in fact I encourage you, to get nasty back.
I have a sign above my desk. It says, “Fuck off, Quittlemouse.”
Mrs Quittlemouse is a personification of my major Voice of Unreason. She came out of a visualisation exercise. You don’t need anything fancy to create one of your own; just some time to yourself. Write or draw a description of one or more of your Voices – whatever it is you hear when you’re trying to get on with what you want to do.
Mrs Quittlemouse is a nasty, mean, tight-bunned, grim bitch. (She looks a little like the woman in the painting American Gothic, only meaner). She is miserable, and wants everyone else to be miserable too. She curls her lip at my every creative impulse and reminds me of every single time I ever failed at anything. She shakes her head when I sit down at the desk, she purses her lips when I start writing, she sniffs disdainfully at every error and tries to stamp on the fragile shoots of a story before they can possibly grow in the concrete wasteland she has instead of a garden.
I can visualise miniaturising her and dropping her in a glass jar and screwing the lid on (as suggested by Ann Lamott in Bird by Bird), where she can tap her foot and sniff at me all she wants, but I can’t hear her. I can jab mental pins in her or lock her in a safe (with any luck one day the old bitch will suffocate in there. I live in hope).
What I can’t do is make her happy. Her whole being is invested in not being happy, in anti-creativity, anti-love, anti-pleasure. She doesn’t recognise happiness, she recognises only Duty and Failure.
The thing is, she’s actually become useful. Making her into a persona, instead of her being an inchoate whirl of foggy nastiness, a thing I couldn’t reach to fight, pins her down and makes her vulnerable, and perhaps most usefully, separates her from me. I can tell her to fuck off. I’m not telling myself, ‘Oh just get on with it Sebold and stop being useless’ – which is just the Voice of Unreason disguising itself as me – I’m telling her, the person hanging on my arms to try and stop me working, to fuck off.
And realising I can’t make her happy, giving up on the idea that she will ever be pleased with me for doing what I want to do, is immensely freeing. If you win awards, gain respect, buy a yacht – or an island – with your creative earnings, the Voices of Unreason are still waiting for a chance to tell you you’re Doin it Rong. Because they’re always looking for another stick to beat you with. They will never be happy or satisfied, because they don’t believe in happiness or satisfaction. The Voices wouldn’t recognise Happiness or Satisfaction if they did the Macarena in front of them. Naked.
So acknowledge your Voices of Unreason, one at a time or all together. Give them faces and personalities, and then tell them to fuck off. Stop trying to please them, it won’t work. Get angry. Rage at them. Stick them in a glass jar, throw it off a building. Or draw them, looking completely ridiculous. Write them into a story and have horrible, humiliating things happen to them. Or put on your headphones, sing, ‘La la la I’m not listening,’ (or something much ruder), as loudly as you can, and know that the Voices of Unreason are going puce with rage as you ignore them and get that one word, that one brushstroke, on paper. It’s immensely satisfying.
And just occasionally it helps me get on with writing.
Anything you say in public can come back to haunt you – anything you say online can be a yell in an avalanche zone. Right now there’s a lot of yelling going on and stuff I care about is getting buried under several tons of high-speed, noisy, brain-freezing verbiage.
Seriously. Everyone? On all sides of any argument – before you say anything online, ever? I’m begging you. Please just think.
I am not directing this at any person in particular, but at everyone who comments online. Because whatever the discussion, it’s so easy just to add to the noise, the anger, the choking, obscuring smoke.
Whether you’re posting or replying, please, just think. Are you clarifying the argument, or making a valid point that people may not have considered, or introducing new information? Or are you just snarling? Do you have evidence of the thing you’re about to say? Can you back up your claim? Or did you hear it from someone in a pub or read it somewhere not known for rigorous journalistic fact-checking? Are you making a considered response to something, a response that has even a slight chance of moving things forward or increasing understanding, or are you snapping at people because you’re angry and hurt?
This applies to me too, of course. I’ve made the occasional utterly thoughtless remark. I’ve been snippy and rude and self-pitying and (I hope, mainly unintentionally) cruel, both online and off, especially in the heat of the moment. I’m trying to stop. Because that stuff has consequences, and those consequences don’t just affect me.
I’m not saying, ‘Always be nice, never be controversial, never be angry;’ certainly not – I am often vocally angry, I am probably occasionally controversial, I am certainly not always nice. Sometimes it is necessary to yell, just to get people to pay attention.
It’s not always easy to yell with point and clarity. Sometimes people say things that are really painful, nasty, incomprehensible, rage-inducingly stupid – and sometimes, like now, I’m having a crappy day and just want to take a chunk out of someone because I am dealing with people and things that have that effect on me.
I am saying please try to choose your targets and consider what you want to say, and why, and in what way you want to say it. Consider the fact that what you’re about to say may have effects, and not just on the person you’re addressing directly. Think about the fact that thousands of people may see your remarks – and keep in mind that it may be the first time some of those people have ever heard of the thing you’re posting about, and it may be the first time they’ve ever heard of you, too. That’s your introduction; that’s who they’ll think you are.
Thought about those things? Then post.
It can’t be that hard, dammit. We’re a fairly bright bunch, we humans, or we wouldn’t have an internet on which to snipe at each other. We can think about a lot of things in a few seconds.
So please. A pause. A few seconds of thought that may, just possibly, help drag any discussion a few millimetres closer to productive discourse – or at least stop it getting any worse.
WHY DO YOU WANT TO DO THIS, ANYWAY?
As society goes speeding on in pursuit of Bigger Better Faster More, many things become harder. One of them is choosing to spend time and effort on something that doesn’t immediately, and may never, produce Sexiness, Celebrity or Money.
Something like writing, say.
And when a writer does Make It Big, it might often appear from the news stories that it took hardly any effort at all.
The phrase Overnight Success should be banned. There is no such thing. There never has been.
Most of the time that ‘first novel’ is the fourth or fifth or sixth, or written after dozens of short stories or other work. Even those whose actual first book is a huge success do not vomit it out overnight without any thought, effort or preparation. True, it may sometimes seem as though that’s the case, but we weren’t there, we don’t know how hard they worked, or how much they agonised over it. And look at any hugely popular creative work, throughout history, and there are people who thought it was a piece of tat. (Sometimes history may agree with them, in which case the work will fade from public consciousness – sometimes history is proved wrong, and the work is rediscovered as a forgotten classic. Nobody knows nothin’, as the saying goes).
The point is that whether someone else’s work does well in society’s terms is irrelevant to you, sitting there right now, trying to get some work done. The only thing that needs to matter to you, right now, is the fact that they managed to get the work done.
And, although there are exceptions, mostly they didn’t do it for money. Or celebrity. Or even for approval.
Because much of the time, none of those are on offer for creative work, certainly not before it’s actually been created. Often the reverse is true: you have to fight to get creative space, to even make an attempt to do the work.
This is harder for some than for others; we all have different pressures. Some of us were brought up to believe that anything that didn’t involve money-making was a waste of time, that life was about financial security. Others, that it was about having a perfect house, perfect career, perfect family or perfect hair and any time spent on something else was at best, foolish; at worst, a selfish and dire sin. (You want to do something that isn’t about being the ideal offspring/image/partner/parent/activist/employee? Burn the heretic!)
Sometimes we have internalised the idea that anything you do on your own, locked away in the silent chatter of your own head, is weird, freaky, wrong – that we’re all supposed to be out having fun with friends or family in a noisy and noticeable fashion, so everyone can see how well socialised we are.
Sometimes we just have an awful lot else to do. Job, family, home, community – these all do, really, take up time and attention and energy and sometimes it feels as though there’s no room left for doing anything creative, and we get so tired, and no-one cares, no-one’s going to even notice, so why bother?
SO WHY DO WE BOTHER? WHY DO WE DO THIS?
We do this because it’s in us to do it. Human beings are by nature creative; we see the results of that all around us, every day. The computer I use, the embroidered cloth on my walls, the desk I sit at – someone imagined all these, someone made them, as well as the books on my shelves (and bed and table and floor. Ahem. I am fighting the ‘perfect housekeeper’ ideal. Quite successfully, as it happens).
We do this because if we don’t, part of us withers and dies. And it doesn’t die clean. It rots painfully away, and infects the rest of our lives with a slow gangrene of unhappiness.
We do this because it feels good. When you actually get going, when you get something done – it feels great. It’s the world’s cleanest high.
HOW DO WE DO THIS?
Ah, there’s the rub. I can’t prescribe. I don’t have the universal antibiotic for block’s disease and no-one’s given me a certificate saying I’m a GP of Creativity. But I have some suggestions.
If you can, forget money. Money for what you’re doing may be important later, yes, but not now, not when you’re just trying to get one thing going.
If you can, forget fame. It’s the most pointless of strivings, a bad-tempered chimera that even if it decides to alight on your wrist is likely to bite you and disappear, leaving you with blood poisoning.
If you can, forget approval. Some of the people whose approval you want are never going to give it, not for this, even if they’re still alive. (Oh, so many of us are still waiting for the dead to give what the living withheld. Give it up. Or try, at least.). The small fraction of society that actually reads books may approve, or may decide to be offended at you on the internet. Hell, you yourself are likely to look at the work at various points and go, jeez, this is a pile of steaming pooh, why did I ever…yeah, since that’s all to come, why borrow trouble this early in the game?
If you can, just think of the work. Not who you hope will see its worth or what you hope you’ll get for it. There’s only one thing you can ever be completely sure you’ll get for any piece of creative work, and that’s the satisfaction of having made it. You’ll have made a thing. And that’s good.
I want to, so why can’t I?
There are people who never seem to get creatively blocked. They merrily produce stories, (or artworks or ceramics or films or jewellery) regularly, frequently, without apparent let or hindrance, maybe even singing as they go.
Try not to hate them. Hating the productive does not improve one’s own life or creativity. It only wrinkles the brow, sours the mouth, and induces back pain.
There are people who agonise over every fragment they produce – such luminaries as Douglas Adams and James Joyce, according to report, expelled every desperate word in paroxysms of painful effort. You might want to write like Adams or Joyce but who wants to go through that much misery?
Most of us are somewhere in between, to differing degrees at different times.
So. There are things to consider. And I believe they apply to other creative arts as well as writing, but I’m using that as my reference as it’s the area in which I have most experience.
Firstly, is writing really what you want to do?
If you have a computer or notebooks full of beginnings, unfinished stories, poems, fragments, half-delineated characters, even a few finished pieces – you’re a writer all right, you just haven’t worked out how to keep at it, even though you want to.
If you have little or nothing, because you’re waiting for the perfect moment, the perfect story, the perfect writing implement, the perfect lifestyle, the perfect everything – I’ve got bad news for you. It’s not going to happen. Because you’re lying to yourself – what you’re really waiting for is for a perfectly formed story to drop into your lap without effort. This is a bad principle to apply to anything in life, including creativity, careers and relationships.
Again, most of us who are interested in writing at all are somewhere in between these two extremes – sometimes with a headful of ideas, sometimes blank. Sometimes finding it easy to produce, sometimes impossible. Sometimes with a handful of completed works of any length – sometimes with only two. Or one. Sometimes self-disciplined, sometimes sulky and rebellious.
Any creative work does take effort. But I have come to believe it doesn’t have to take blood, toil, tears and sweat for every goddamned brush-stroke or paragraph.
So over the next few weeks I plan to offer, among other things, some thoughts on why it’s sometimes difficult to produce, even when you really want to, and some methods I have found that may help to make it easier.
Just for a starter: when you begin, banish the thought of perfection. Nothing starts out perfect, nothing ends up perfect. A baby is only ever a perfect baby. It has to grow, change, be socialised and learn to walk and hundreds of other things in order to become a functional adult human, and the best of adult humans is still an imperfect being. A shrivelled little apple seed contains within it many apples – but only if all other conditions are right, if it gets sun and water and wholesome soil and the loving attention of the bee. Even then some of the apples will end up with bruises or spots – but they’ll still be good to eat. Your seed, your story, doesn’t have to be a whole tree, right now, or a perfect tree, ever. It only has to be a seed, and get planted.