Do you work joyfully...or suffer for your art?
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I came across this article on cartoonist Charles Schulz who, contrary to what I thought, turned out to be a fairly melancholic individual. This brings up the question--and point of this thread--does creating art have to be a painful experience? For me it is: physically, mentally and spiritually taxing. Like Mr. Capote says (quoted on another thread for Theresa), God gave me a gift AND a whip and I often feel like I'm being flayed alive as I work. I'd like to hear from the rest of you, your experiences with creating, joyful...or otherwise.
(Thanks to rdurick, Message #4, for help creating this link)
I don't think I would ever feel I had paid a high price for being a writer, like Eliot. Writing has centered me; but a lot of what I have accomplished hasn't been easy and did not come without sacrifice. I've never felt on the verge of collapse after finishing a project, but I've been very driven and afterwards have slept hours and hours. And I think whether I had become a writer or not, I would have been a social misfit, although I enjoy aspects of teaching very much.
At a certain point, I purchased a book called Take Joy by Jane Yolen because I felt I had forgotten that writing can be joyful. When I was a child and teen I loved it so; it was fun. But in my 30s and 40s it became an intense experience and a frustrating one. By my mid 40's and now into my early 50s it's leveling out, I think. I can feel joy at writing again, and also frustration and despair, sometimes.
There's so much more to say, though...
I keep HOPING writing will get easier but with each new project I have to keep raising the bar, shooting for another personal best. Forgive the sports analogy but (along with warfare) it kind of sums up my approach to writing. I never relent...and, as a result, writing is rarely fun for me. I'll be 44 this month and I'd like to see some changes in my attitude toward crafting prose but that obsessive-compulsive perfectionist in me just won't loosen the reins.
The easiest way to enter a link is to copy and paste it, then put a space before and after it. If you want to put the link under another word, you can use HTML. The syntax is
"less than symbol"a href="http://www.othersite.com""greater than symbol""word you want to use as link""less than symbol"/a"greater than symbol"
New York Times Schulz article
I hope this works.
PS All of the quotation marks go away when you enter a specific instance.
PPS Edited to keep the URL in bounds; it was not likely useful anymore.
Thanks a lot for the hint on links--I shall give it a try. AND, more importantly, you expressed it in such a way that even an upright mandrill like myself stands a fair to middling chance of accomplishing the task. My appreciation...
I, too, feel both joy and suffering when I work. I suffer more, though, when I'm not writing than when I am. Life might be easier for me if I could be happy working an office job, reporting at a specific hour, chugging through the day's alloted work and leaving it all behind when I go home. It would certainly be more remunerative. But I feel driven to connect with the world at a deeper level. I don't know that I have ever succeeded in doing that through my writing, but I do think I've learned a great deal from the process. Those "aha!" moments when I feel like I've understood something true are wonderfully joyful. The suffering comes when I feel isolated and unable to set things down in such a way that others will "get" the vision I'm trying to communicate.
I'm sorry if this doesn't make sense. Trying to be more spontaneous here without over analysing it...too much Walt Whitman this weekend!
My creative time is probably more joyful than not in that I have a "day" job and the writing, sketching, even research is a delight to me. That doesn't mean I don't end up tearing my hair out and attacking the excersice equipment out of frustration and the inadequacy of my results from time to time.
Perfectionsim is probably more responsible for my pain, than creating is...
With that said, I still get a glimpse of that obsession which would take me by the heart and keep me captive at the expense of every other thing in my life...even now, I want to give into it. The strength of this "need" to create has in the past, left me hollowed out and empty and the process was as harsh and terrible as anything I've ever experienced. In my youth, it terrified me...that's why I have a day job ... I admire writers and artists (like you cliffburns!) who could and have endured it. I couldn't then, maybe soon.
And, everyone in this group, please just call me Cliff.
I think it's important to point out that my "sufferings" and the crap I go through are part involuntary (brain chemistry, upbringing) and part stupidity (never learning to type properly, hitting the keyboard too hard). I have an obsessive personality and that is why my work goes through so many drafts--less to do with aesthetics or talent and more to do with a chemical imbalance in my head. It's NOT about courage or brilliance and I don't find myself a particularly admirable or sympathetic figure. Except, perhaps, to the extent that I have persevered despite countless rejections and frustrations.
I can't do anything EXCEPT write--I'm rather a one-trick pony that way. "Writing is the pain I can't live without" (Robert Penn Warren) but the pain is either self-inflicted or a manifestation of a mild form of mental illness. When I whine about the condition of my hands or "grinding out" prose, I don't deserve sympathy. More like a dose of lithium and a swift kick in the ass with a frozen boot (one of my father's terms)...
Call me out on it if you catch me whining and mewling about my pitiful existence. I'll keep a boot in the freezer for you...
I know what you mean about being interrupted. I'm very much the same way. When I get absorbed into something, writing or drawing, the rest of the world ceases to interest me at all. Time, food, sleep, loved ones...nothing else really factors in.
It is odd state for a normally friendly and loving person to warp into. And rather guilt inducing. I was (long ago) called selfish and self absorbed and all kinds of not nice things on account of this "flow"...but I'm getting over it.
Second, I'd like to know who came up the idea that misery is somehow more honest and authentic than joy. In the words of Thomas Mallon, I eschew the "the diseased twentieth-century belief that bad experience is more authentic than good, that misery is truth and happiness deception."
You know how to recognize an independent film? Everyone's unhappy. "It's weird, I don't get it. It must be profound."
Anything serious and worthwhile takes effort, skill, and intelligence. There's no shortcut.
My family has learned to give me space when I'm in a creative fever. Because if mom suffers, everyone suffers...
"After her student days were over everything happened so quickly - mass transit, shopping, housekeeping, a job. The time for thought ended because thinking is hard work and can be done only under the right conditions. You need quiet, free time, a regular schedule, and discipline. You have to train yourself. At least in theory you can think anywhere and while doing anything, such as when your're pushing a shopping cart around a department store. But the background music distracts you, the lights glare........................"
I need to devote time to thinking. It gets too easily crowded up there in my brain.
Maybe this explains why so many successful writers are independently wealthy or older. My mind gets crowded, confused and shuts down in an uncreative mode when I am doing the jobs of life. Anyone else have this problem?
Reading your post instantly brings to mind Woolf's "A Room of One's Own". Although it deals with specifically feminine hindrances to writing, it's easy to extrapolate difficulties with writing from it to other hindrances to creativity. I would say that you share this problem with a very notable crowd of people.
This question has become an agonizingly serious issue for me over the past three or four months, although in some respects I'm approaching it from a very different angle. For reasons I'm not entirely sure I can explain, I've taken it to mind that I am an artist, despite the fact that I've done little more than write essays (for class, to betray my age) and the verbal equivalent of doodling in one's notebook. I've not published anything, much less written a novel, yet I feel -intensely- that I ought to be doing so. -Something- has lit an author's fire inside, intense enough to where friends notice my discomfort.
Frustratingly, after feeling this drive for some months now, I have very little to show for my agony. I have several typed pages of my novel and a notebook with various ideas, names, and so forth scribbled (neatly) about, but really, my brainchild hasn't progressed much beyond a sperm and egg. I'm constantly thinking about my novel, but despite entertaining these ideas -
Again, it's agonizing. Entertaining these ideas is just that - entertaining; I enjoy it throughly. Unfortunately, the ideas see themselves out for the evening (as they are eventually bound to do) and I revert to fretting over the fact that nothing remains done.
My method has always involved putting the editorial mind on hold and put pen to paper, complete the first draft in a blur of speed and intensity and never mind if it doesn't make sense or meanders all over the place. Beginning a project is always hard for me but once I get going, it develops a momentum and life of its own. A drive which produces nothing leaves only a sense of inadequacy and defeat. Get something down on paper, get it out in a white heat and know that you can revise later, nothing is set in stone. But don't lose the excitement of the original idea or concept that you just can't get out of your head.
Is any of this helpful? I can sense your frustration and that's the best possible advice I can give you. Write, even if it doesn't make sense. Words on paper (W.O.P.) and worry about cohesion later...
That feeling of wanting to write but being too confused, busy, uh creatively constipated, was awful. Tormenting, yes.
#20: You just have to keep going. It took me six years to finish my novel. I have a stack of papers (still under my desk) that represents all the false starts, rough drafts, and really awful writing that went into forming the final piece. Just keep going.
Yes, even though the advice is something "I know", I find myself plagued by two phenomena: an "invisible audience" and artistic deep-freeze. I'm sure other people suffer and benefit from the former, and the latter I feel as if I will always be waking from. No matter what I write, for pleasure or for class, my work is always in "editorial mode"; before they ever reach the paper or the screen, my ideas are already being revised. ("Is this the right word? No, that's not what I think. Did I just type that?" etc)
I suppose I have the author's equivalent of the amateur guitarist's frustration at making noise instead of cleanly playing chords - except that I've been writing (essays, at least) for long enough that I would have hoped to overcome this by now.
I don't know how old you are or how long you've been writing essays. How long? Are you in college now?
I'm a university writing teacher. I don't tell people how to write or what should work for them. I know what works for me. I know if I go into editorial mode too early I destroy the work. But other writers produce and publish and edit early on. Only you can know what works for you, how much disarray you can stand in early drafts.
I try to push myself through a rough draft completely before I edit. I don't always make it. Sometimes I need to edit because the story is going badly. Generally, I print out the draft and then start all over again. Try to find my form on a fresh page. Trial and error and not being afraid to try new things will go a long way. Also reading A LOT.
A university student looking to escape the "real world" by remaining in the system long enough until it decides to reward me with the honor of teaching for a pitiful salary. I look forward to lifelong improverishment, but remain optimistic regardless.
As true as it is, I'm not entirely sure I want to break into my frozen sea if it's anything like what laid inside Kafka.
I do appreciate the advice and encouragement, however; now if I could only shift my focus away from this website to the minimized Word document on my screen...
I've always been drawn to the surrealist notion of automatic writing, opening up the flood gates and seeing where that takes you. A few paragraphs and it may tail off...and then come surging back. A load of slop and then one sentence, a single sentence or even a phrase that triggers a voice, a character, a scene. I wish I could tell you an easy "how to" method but, really, what it comes down to is finding it within yourself. You either write...or you don't. Writing is a shout of defiance, against the silence, against the indifference, against the voices (even inside you) that insist what you create has no value.
All the self-help books and advice and creative writing courses in the world are meaningless unless you have the courage to look foolish, to fail time and time again. A writer is a clown with a pen doing pratfalls. A single handclap redeems him but jeers never cow or dissuade him...
I also agree that you have to risk foolishness. The writers I love best took such a risk. A lot of what goes on in my early drafts is foolish. But within such foolishness I sometimes bump up against a great idea.
It's almost impossible for me to not edit as I go, but I have to strive to do as little as possible at the first draft stage. For years, I could hardly get beyond chapter 1 of any project, because every time I sat down to write, I started with the first sentence and started polishing. Now, I've completed 3 novel manuscripts, but all of them are out of balance, to at least some degree, with the chapters becoming progressively rougher toward the end of the novel. It's not that I don't revise the last chapters. But I don't revise them as much or with as fine-toothed a comb as I do the earlier chapters. After a certain point, I get tired of a particular story and set of characters, and it becomes counterproductive to fuss with it any more. I'm learning that I need to force myself to spend less time on the early chapters so I will have enough enthusiasm, or at least stamina, left by the time I complete a first draft to work the whole thing over thoroughly so the quality is reasonably uniform from beginning to end. I tend to write long books, which adds to the difficulty.
But, whatever method you use, editing is an exhausting process and it certainly requires a lot of stamina and perseverance. The first draft is pure inspiration but the real ART comes from the shaping and refining of the material, getting all that raw footage into order and context. I remember reading an interview with Peter Straub, talking about his collaboration with Stephen King (The Talisman): "Steve hates editing but I love it," Straub gushed.
I think Straub is the only writer I've ever heard say he "loves" editing. I could strangle him for that (but, in the same breath, I'll take his carefully crafted prose over King's work any day)...
It may be just me, but what I enjoy most about writing is that there seems to be a point at which, regardless of how much I thought the idea through or outlined the story, things emerge and I am changed by these things. (good grief that's vague!) Do any of you know what I'm referring to?
It's this revelation of sorts that hooks me. It can happen in the revision or rewriting stage just as easily as the original spewing out of words stage...can be caused even by a modest factoid during research...I just love it.
And I figure if I didn't anticipate an action or plot twist, then surely the Reader is going to be gobsmacked by it.
I don't often work to an outline--I may sketch out some ideas and character notes beforehand but, for the most part, my first draft is the template I work from. The plot and characters manifest themselves gradually. Then at some point the tumblers start falling into place and it's magic time...
When I was young and fantasized about being a writer, I found writing to be very cathartic, pleasurable in a way. I guess that's why I was never very good and gave it up.
I tweak and revise for years. I even write about my ocd tweaking and twiddling with my stories, which are not stories at all, but essays downloaded from my memory banks. I can't begin to write fiction. I collect stories, all true ones, and twist them and turn them and peek all around for the real truth, the true colors and shades of meaning and then try to paint the pictures in words. My failure to meet my standards is excruciating. It's almost as bad as my feeble attempts to paint watercolors, and I'm really bad at them....
Soldier on we must, or go crazy. Isn't it a chicken egg quandry? Write to keep the crazy at bay or write because the crazy has landed? Will I end up crazier if I do write or if I don't write about the niggling thoughts? Things that make me go hmmmmmmm.
I wonder too about the age thing. Is it a late 40's, midlife, narrows experience that makes this all the more urgent and painful? I was too busy in my 20's living, working and playing and having a ball to write my grand unification theory of life, and now I have the inclination but perhaps not the skills or worse yet question the point....What the heck do I know that you all don't already comprehend?
But then, yes, the art is the axe that breaks the frozen sea....
and this quote lifted from Anne Lamott...After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: ''Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.''
Write, draw, same difference....
Lastly, the ER book The Story of Forgetting, had a tremendous impact on me, because the bones of the story I could have written, but I'll never construct something as good as the 24 year old who penned it. I took heart in his notes where he admits to writing thousands of pages which he threw out before his character's voices took shape. He wove in a story he wrote in college, all those 3 or four years prior, and made it almost work with the rest of his amazing story. So the moral is I guess you have to write a lot of crap sometimes before you can mine a gem, and be careful what you throw out, you just may want to use it someday....
I definitely think writing is a hold-the-crazy-at-bay function, not an end-up-crazier one! So often, I don't understand myself until I write down my thoughts, and then I begin to. Sometimes we are drawn to write on a particular topic in order (perhaps without realizing it) to persuade ourselves to make positive changes in our lives.
I used this quote at the beginning my MFA thesis. I, too, have always loved it. It speaks to the passion of reading and writing--not just the passion but also the need to experience both. Without books (particularly fiction) I believe I would turn into a frozen sea. Horrible to contemplate.
It wasn't until my 40s, after all/most of the children were out of the house, that I was able to write anything of real significance to me. Yes, I felt the urgency because of my age, but also I think something in me changed. A prism formed in me, allowing me to focus my experiences, observations, and my imagination in a way that fell together into workable stories. I came to myself; I found my true self. An ongoing process, but it really began here: in my 40s.
Wish you well on your journey, readaholic.
And to you on yours..
Interesting you use the prism analogy, it's the visual in my head when a thought pops fully formed - the Pink Floyd album cover! I love the idea of scattered white light focused into a crystalline rainbow of clarity!
Cliff, have you seen Kokoshka's painting The Mandrill? Yours reminded me of his, though yours is not disturbing or dark!
readaholic, Ah, I know what you mean about the Pink Floyd cover! How true!
Shaking our bags of bones, creating magic out of thin air...
And, actually, I am very interested in the shaman tradition and how art is connected to that. I've subscribed to Parabola Magazine for years, and it has had a few great articles on it.
I think my interest mostly springs from my curiosity about how the brain works in relation to the "divine." They say there is a "God part of the brain." I've wondered whether my stories come from this place. I often feel such a sense of wholeness when I write. In the Shaman tradition, there is such an emphasis on wholeness, on uniting lost parts of the self or making damaged parts well.
I'm new to this. But here is my fragment: I teach high school full-time and college three-quarter time, and still try to create art (www.recollections54.com), play guitar for a band, and write for public speaking, and of course, class lectures.
I have just printed off this entire thread, because I got tired of selecting--there were so many great personal ideas flourishing. This thread has a real pulse.
I know all-too-well the agony of not finding adequate space or time to create, and sometimes I wonder if it is cowardly that I work so many jobs, because the pay is guaranteed, and it's easier for me to grouse that I don't have quality time to create.
But the reality is this: I suffer agonizingly when I am not creating. It doesn't matter if my schedule is too demanding, or if I'm just "blocked" as an artist--if I'm not creating, I am profoundly unhappy. But when I'm in that "zone"--and it really doesn't matter whether it's a watercolor, a poem, a public address, or a class lecture--I feel an exhilaration that causes me to neglect sleep, food, exercise and the like. When I feel visited by some muse, I just want that relationship to extend forever. I truly, truly pity anyone who does not experience the bliss of creating something from out of the void--for anyone who does not know what it is like to see an image emerge on the white plane, a line of words to arrange on the page, or bars of musical notes to fill the air with a sweetness that defies words--I'm sorry for anyone that does not know, or respect that dynamic.
I'm proud to meet all of you. I hope there will be a way that we can converse. You seem to be a real lifeline--I do have trouble meeting in the flesh other artistic spirits who like to discuss the creative process. And as a teacher of the Humanities--I love all creators--musicians, writers, visual artists, actors--I love creative humanity.
Thank you for letting me in.
This discussion group you started is incredible. I hope to continue drawing wealth from the scores of creative spirits who are putting in their ideas. I've only been reading these for about 2 1/2 days now, and I'm incredibly busy with my personal schedule (have to speak tomorrow, so I'm still cranking out a manuscript tonight). But I will continue to come back to all of you.
For me, there's a difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. The nonfiction work is creative enough to keep me pacified. I seem to be better at it than I am at the fiction, or at least, the nonfiction seems to be less difficult to sell. But it's the fiction that puts me in the "zone."
No wonder Sherlock Holmes took cocaine between cases...
I was terrified that having children would seriously cut into my writing time, worried that this would lead to my resenting them. Instead, I found that fatherhood focussed my energies, changed my brain chemistry and made me a better writer. I had to organize myself more effectively so that when the opportunity to write came, I'd be ready. Snipped out much of the procrastination that used to dog me. I tell more tales from kids' points of view and have deeper reservoirs of emotion and experience to draw from since the lads arrived.
So when you do eventually free up that time, DMTripp, don't waste a second, just dive in. Being away from our art makes us treasure it that much more. In its absence if we DON'T ache for it, there's something wrong with us...
You have to take out the spaces:
Then I'll prolly have to do something.
PS I did the something.
Thanks for your added remarks, Theresa. Yes, the classroom/lecture hall is glorious. Set yourself on fire, and they'll come for miles to watch you burn. I do love watching students catch the fever. And they probably will never know fully how many times I catch the fever from their input and response. In the midst of all my whining, I do need to admit that I teach electives. I don't have recalcitrant students forced on me because of a required course that they happen to despise. They sign up for me if I have them in my room. And that indeed lends itself to a creative environment.
Hang in there.
"Art is a sacrifice of life itself. The artist sacrifices life to art not because he wants to but because he can not do anything else."
"The skeins of wools are a friendly refuge, like a web or a cocoon. The caterpillar gets the silk from his mouth, builds his cocoon and when it is completed he dies. The cocoon has exhausted the animal. I am the cocoon. I have no ego. I am my work."
Strange Brew, 17 May 2005.