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why 'create or die!' is so overrated

*cross-posted to Storytellers Unplugged

Listening to: DJ Shadow

When I was in university, one of my closest friends asked me if writing fiction couldn’t be a “hobby” instead of something I staked my future and livelihood on.

I was adamant that it could not. I had to create or die, dammit! I was born to be a writer! Anything else would be a death of the soul!

I wonder about that now. It’s good – and necessary – to be passionately dedicated to your art, whichever and whatever the art happens to be. But I’m also reminded of something that Stephen King said in his book On Writing: art is a support system for life, not the other way around.

When I was a kid, I could knock out five or ten pages of fiction with such ease I honestly didn’t understand what it meant to have ‘writer’s block’ or why writers, especially successful writers who made it look easy, would go on about the pain and torment of facing the blank page.

Sure, I was young. But writing was not the center of my existence; school and family occupied most of my time and mental energy.

Writing was the shadow life, running through the real one.

Writing took place at the edges of things.

Only later, when I was an adult, and in a situation where I could put my writing squarely in the center of my days, did I start to understand the pain and torment those writers were talking about.

There is a lot of anxiety involved in the creative process. The choices we know we have to make and the self-doubt we know we have to weather, and then the criticism and rejection we know we will experience when it comes time to show our work to the world (or at least certain corners of it), demand a toughness of spirit that isn’t always easy to manifest.

Then there’s the nature of the work itself: that mysterious wild quality to the creative process that seems beyond our control, so that we often feel ourselves at the mercy of it -- that it’s the boss of us rather than vice-versa -- and wouldn’t it be nicer and easier to go to the movies instead. There’s something to be said for keeping that kind of work at the edges of your life: like an eclipse that will drive you blind if you stare at it too directly, maybe fiction-writing, or art-making in general, is often possible only if you sneak up on it from a certain angle.

After all, the harder and tighter we try to hold on to anything, the more likely it is to slip through our fingers.

There’s an anecdote I like to tell about a writer I used to know whenever I got into a discussion about MFA programs. I think there’s a lot of value in MFA programs, but I was making a point similar to the point I’m making now: the importance of doing something else, of having a passion other than writing, a passion that you can bring to your writing.

My friend, K, published his first book of short stories when he was 28. He won a prestigious national prize for the title story. I knew him at university – he was bright, and showed talent as a writer, and was devoted to the craft.

He wasn’t unlike many other young aspiring writers who graduate university and go on to do an MFA, or take jobs in coffee shops and write when they can.

K, though, took a different route – he loved sailing and had a passion for the sea. Despite his complete lack of experience, he figured out how to get himself hired as a crew member on a yacht. He sailed round the world, went scuba diving, visited many different countries and took an interest in the people there.

Then he came home and transmuted those experiences into fiction. He found an agent and got a two-book deal with a major publisher. The book came out and, from what I understand, did well, got some good reviews, and K looked poised for the kind of literary career others only dream of.

When I told this anecdote, I was making the point that there are alternatives to the MFA route, and finding a different path that provides equally different material for your fiction can be a deep advantage.

To be sure, K sought out writing teachers and mentors, including a professor at the local university. He read and wrote and got constructive feedback and revised and wrote some more.

That’s what you do.

That’s the job.

He didn’t write a perfect manuscript. But what he did write was something very different than what his peers in their MFA programs were writing, and it made his voice fresh and distinctive, and it gave him a great story of his own to include in the author blurb at the back of the book and in promotional materials. He didn’t just learn how to write; he went out into the world and found something to say.

In everything I’ve read about writing fiction, everything addressed to aspiring writers and especially young aspiring writers, I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on that: find your voice, yes, but also find something to say.

Find the subject matter that is uniquely your own.

Be curious about the world and hungry for experience. Get obsessed, and follow those obsessions wherever they lead you.

And then write about them. Be bold. Take chances. Use your imagination as well as what you know, use your ability to put yourself in someone else’s perspective.

K wrote stories about a young man who works on a yacht, a young man who learns about love and sex, but he also wrote from the perspectives of women, of people from different places, different cultures.

Write what you know, but chances are that you know more than you think you know. Keep learning, keep exploring, so that you know more and more.

But here’s the other part to the story about K, that I didn’t have way back when I used to tell this anecdote. Seven years later, he has yet to come out with the second book in his two-book contract. As far as I know – and I could be mistaken – he hasn’t published again.

The last time I saw K, he was passing through Los Angeles on his way to Mexico where he was going to stay with a friend on the beach and write his novel. Finishing his novel was important, K told me, because he had to do it for him, not his publisher; he had to know that he could do it.

I haven’t seen or talked to him since. I hope he finished it. But I think there’s a good chance he didn’t, because something in his writer-self had shifted since the success of his book. Writing no longer held the same kind of fascination for him; the spark had gone out of it, the way it sometimes does, especially when we invest it with that Create or Die ultimatum. Unlike when he wrote those short stories, people were watching him, now, people were waiting for his work. They had expectations for him. He had expectations for himself.

When we have so much at stake, we get tense. We get anxious. Anxiety reaches deep into the most ancient part of our brains and triggers that fight-or-flight–or-freeze response. All we’re facing is the blank page, but we might as well be facing a snarling sabertooth tiger; that primitive part of our brain can’t tell the difference.

All it registers is: threat.

All it cares about is: survival.

So we freeze up. We back away. And maybe we take flight into some activity or process that is guaranteed to relieve that anxiety, at least temporarily, whether it’s watching television or shopping or doing drugs or alcohol or any other one of a myriad of hard and soft addictions.

Then we berate ourselves for our lack of willpower, we call ourselves idiots; we feel like total failures, we regret the lost time, the lost chances to produce good work. But that part of our brain is older than we are, and it operates in a dark instinctive space that is beyond language or reason. If we back it into a corner, and make it think it’s fighting for its very survival, can we be surprised at how fiercely it drives us away? And that, once again, no writing gets done?

Having it on the sidelines, releasing ourselves from the pressure and burden of expectations, might be, ironically enough, one way of keeping our writing center stage. We do our work in the corner, nourish it and let it grow like a plant that only blooms in the dark. So much of writing seems to happen underground anyway, in the rich mysterious spaces of that parallel life where other lives get lived and life-or-death drama plays out while we run errands, make lunch for the kids, put in the time at the day job.

If you wrote for twenty to thirty minutes a day – every day – you could write a book in a year.

Writing fiction is serious business. It demands nothing less than everything you’ve got to give: your blood, sweat, heart and soul; your time; your ego. You expose yourself in your work and again when you show your work. It deserves to be taken seriously, and yet somehow we have to find a way to treat it lightly, hold it lightly, so it doesn’t slip away from us.
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( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 20th, 2009 09:54 am (UTC)
You've written something that I've been thinking about for awhile, especially since I realised that I am more comfortable with myself as a writer when I'm more immersed in my studies (I'm a final year economics undergrad).
Sep. 20th, 2009 03:20 pm (UTC)
The synchronicity of this particular post really hits me, as I've been putting together these ideas in search of a solution. I ran into a Slate article this week that gave me a piece.


I'm trying to finish reading http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/354712.The_Midnight_Disease_The_Drive_to_Write_Writer_s_Block_and_the_Creative_Brain. That one has clued me in to a few interesting ideas.

And, this week, a friend told me about a radio interview she heard where Ted Danson said that Kelsey Grammar taught him that one of the things you need to perform well is a "requisite disrespect," for what you are doing. Just enough disrespect to take some of the pressure off yourself stop trying so hard to please and to be perfect and relax into the work and have some fun.

Yeah. Relaxing. Working on that.
Sep. 20th, 2009 07:25 pm (UTC)
very well said
Sep. 21st, 2009 06:49 am (UTC)
Well said. I'm very thankful that I didn't get my fiction published at 18, as I so desperately wanted to. In the years since I've found my voice, improved my technique -- and experienced something to write about. Now the ideas are flying like a blizzard; back then those few ideas I had were half-baked or already done.
Sep. 21st, 2009 12:40 pm (UTC)
"Inspiration first, then everything will take care of itself"

What struck me about your story about K, was that his writing was triggered (inspired) by the boat adventure. Like in a chemical reaction A + B + C => D + E (where there is a catalyst K that overcomes the activation-energy, to make the reaction go forward), there is a similar dynamic in creative xxxx (writing, science, art, painting, etc). Inspiration is the Catalyst, that makes the process go. You might have heard the famous Reggie Jackson quote: "I'm the straw that stirs the drink". He was famous for clutch hitting during post-season (playoffs & World Series). I just saw the 60 Minutes episode last night about Pete Carroll (brilliant/successful coach @USC). He is the catalyst behind the USC team, he inspires players (the crucial pre-game speech). Another well known coach was Jim Valvano of N. Carolina State (basketball), who won a NCAA championship in 1983.

Jim Valvano - Room of Dreams

He uses the quote:

"Nothing can Happen, if not first a dream"
-- Carl Sandberg, poet

Poet Carl Sandberg once said, "Nothing can Happen, if not first a Dream"

NC State has been blessed with many dreamers
In the 40's Everett Case came here from the Midwest
He dreamed of building a National Power
He dreamed of bulding an arena to house that power

He dreamt it, & he did it

1974 the names David Thompson "the player of the year"
Stoddard Monty Powell
These players dreamed of bringing it all home

They brought home the Atlantic Coast Championship
They won our first national championship

The names changed the result was the same
Lowe, Wittenburg, Bailey, & the dunk by Lorrenzo Charles
brought home another Atlantic Coast Championship, & the SECOND National Championship.

I'm a dreamer
I have Big Dreams
I dream of winnng our 3rd championship, adding banner of ranother ACC championship
I dream, of someday havingn arena which is the largest & the best in the entire country

You know something
Dreams come true at NC State
Dreams become reality at NC State

Are you a Dreamer
Do you have Dreams that you can make come true
Can you accept that Challenge?

I think you can.

Remember, a wise man once said: "Nothing can Happen, if not first a dream"

Remember the Apple commercial (note that you are an Apple user), "It's all the crazy ones [ idealists with a dream ]" (Thomas Edison, Richard Branson, et al).

Another good point of view from the world of Science/Astronomy is here:

David Levy PATS 2008 interview

"The most IMPORTANT thing in Astronomy, where Science Outreach is 2nd, is providing INSPIRATION to the public"
-- David Levy

Selling Science/Astronomy to the Public for the purpose of Public Outreach is a tough sell, since STM (Science Technoogy Mathematics) is an inherently steep-learning curve subject. The old strategy (& still used today to some degree) is "Dissemination of Science", i.e. presentation of technical material at various levels (kids, high schoolers, educated laymen). A newer approach that is being tried is Entertainment (dramatic presentations of Science, especially Scientists with interesting personalities. TV, Film, Books (novels, hint hint...), Computer Animation in conjunction with *effective* multimedia like photos, videos, animations, etc. A Caltech/SIRTF (Spitzer Infra Red Telescope Facility) female astronomer (Dir of Public Outreach) stated on her website, that Star Wars inspired her to become an Astronomer. AMAZING. A fictional hero/villain story model, set in a Space/Tech background, triggered ("catalyst", see above chemical reaction analogy) a young girl to get addicted to Astronomy..everything else took care of itself. [ CONTINUED ]
Sep. 21st, 2009 12:43 pm (UTC)
I noticed you made a call for "femme fatale" character, since you & Joanna noticed that todays movies lacked such a female lead character. It just so happens, my wanderings in Astronomy, HEP (High Energy Physics) has turned up some REALLY INTERESTING female scientists, who fit that bill. Their outdoor activities are AMAZING, like climbing the tallest mountains of the world, being rescued by helicopter after falling during a Yosemite rock-climb, 30 yrs Alpine Skiing, trained in alpine rescue. Both of them have an opera background (1 is an opera singer). I believe 1 of them crossed your path in Beverly Hills at that Art Show (you took a picture of her) last year, she was on leave to Caltech PMA (Physics Math Astronomy). A novel written about these 2 wild women (double whammy), would be in high demand by the Scientific Community (which is funded by NSF/National Science Foundation, DoE/Dept of Energy, et al). I've already developed the Concept (near 90%), & I'm about to write a proposal for some funding. A novelist like yourself (Queens U. educated, "Harvard of the North") would immediately get their attention, & a fully integrated program could be designed/funded. It would integrate creative content creators (like yourself, TV writers, Film writers, etc), distributed on mediums like Youtube, iTunes video-podcast, downloadable Video (embedded Flash players), DVDs, Television, Film, Animated Movies. This is part of the well known "Content/Distribution" model.

Back in '93, Rick Smolan (famous National Geographic photographer) wrote a book "From Alice to Ocean", which included a CD with multimedia:

Wikipedia Rick Smolan

In 1977 National Geographic assigned Smolan to photograph a story about an Australian woman, Robyn Davidson, who traveled across Australia with camels. Davidson later wrote a book about it, Tracks (1980), in which she revealed her romantic relationship with Smolan. Smolan's photography appeared both in the magazine andTracks which has become something of a travel classic[6]. In the early 1990s, Smolan published his pictures of the trip, in From Alice to Ocean; which has the distinction of being the first interactive story-and-photo CD made for public release

This is an amazing parallel to your story about K, a journey inspired a book.

"The Journey...IS the Reward"
-- Chinese proverb (also used by famous UCLA basketball coach John Wooden)

"We are the music makers [ novel writers ], and we are the dreamers of dreams."
-- Willy Wonka
Sep. 24th, 2009 12:50 am (UTC)
You've just described perfectly the terror I'm feeling right now. I've just sold my first book and am writing the second (for which I'm getting paid and am seriously, seriously grateful and amazed)and I'm feeling a little stunned. Suddenly this is all real - and people have expectations!!! I off, right now, to find a way to come at this sideways just as you suggest.
Sep. 30th, 2009 05:22 pm (UTC)
Let me know how that works out for you! Would love to hear more about your process even as you work it out. :)
Oct. 9th, 2009 03:55 am (UTC)
late to the post, but...
Wow. I love this article!

I think as "artists" we often demand that our written work (novels especially) attain a certain level of success. Unlike our painter/sculptor brothers and sisters who create their art, and then move on to the next piece, we expect that our novels get published, praised and elevated atop best-seller lists. If/when they don't, it can be an arduous task to begin anew. Didn't I just spend five years writing that last novel???

But the creative process isn't the same for every project. Some novels write themselves and move faster, some take longer. I love the quote above about the "Journey being the reward," and am reminded of another quote of King in "On Writing." The one where he talks about not having ANY recollection or memories of writing "Cujo" because of his drinking problem. He notes how sad he finds it that he can't remember that time, the process of creation. How fortunate are we who are creating, and will have memories of birthing art to the world.

Write on, Justine!
Oct. 10th, 2009 03:03 am (UTC)
Re: late to the post, but...
The simple fact is that writing changes when you begin getting money for doing it. Once it becomes a way to make a living, it stops being magical. Obligation takes over inspiration. I would give everything I own to go back to the days when my writing didn't pay my rent, buy my food, clothe my children, cover my taxes, purchase my luxuries, good times, and peace of mind. I used to sit in front of a blank page and wonder where it would lead me. Now I sit in front of a blinking cursor that impatiently hurries me along to that next paycheck.
Oct. 10th, 2009 10:58 pm (UTC)
Great article
Boy, I really loved this article. Very, very thought provoking. I could relate to a lot of it. Thanks for insight! Sherrie Super
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

About Me

I'm the author of three published novels: the dark fantasies BLOODANGEL and LORD OF BONES (Roc/Penguin) and the YA supernatural thriller UNINVITED (MTV/Simon&Schuster). I also have stories in the MAMMOTH BOOK OF VAMPIRE ROMANCE 2 and ZOMBIES: ENCOUNTERS WITH THE HUNGRY DEAD. I'm working on a psychological thriller called THE DECADENTS. I am divorced, with sons, and live in Bel Air.

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