Sooner or later you realize this whole “I’ll write fiction in my spare time” thing doesn’t work. It sounded good; nice, tidy, and rational – reasonable, you reasoned… But something goes awry. The protagonist in this fiction-writing story always wakes up and it’s at least 30 years later and The Book (as it comes to be fondly known) is still more in the head than on the paper. It’s like the minute you accepted a Real Job’s paycheck, you stepped into a faery ring and actually ate the food. Now you are ensnared, bewitched and pixie-led while other unknown authors get discovered and go down in merchandising history.
Oh there are alleged solutions: The Weekend Novelist (Robert J Ray), Write Your Novel in 30 Days: a 10-Step Guide (Garda Parker), How to Write a Book in 30 Days or Less (Fred Gleeck) and Novel in a Month: Write Your Best Seller in 28 Days (Dan Strauss)… None of which work if you can’t get to First Base with the Muse.
There’s also unemployment. Or we can call it a “sabbatical” for poor people. Still, guilt is a fulltime job. And I have discovered that whether you are working fulltime or obsessing about the guilt of not being able to find work, a busy and distracted mind is a cluttered mind disconnected from the creativity receptacle. And perhaps most disturbingly, I have realized that for most of the last several years I have been mistaking an abandoned dress dummy for the Muse. It is time to clear the cobwebs.
A reminder: Writer’s Stasis is not the same as Writer’s Block. Stasis results from interrupting the Muse one time too many; she gets temperamental…bitchy. It happens when everything else has priority over writing, when writing is more or less permanently slated to that block of spare time that never arrives uninterrupted. One could reasonably argue that this condition is symptomatic of a Real Life…the one people are wont to suggest you get when you spend all your waking hours shut in a quiet room filled with monster figurines, plush dinosaurs and puppets. But for some types of writers, Real Life is creatively disruptive…it’s as though human contact is not compatible with the writing process.
This is true for me. I am not a fan of people and their penchant for odd game-playing, for being lured out of the shadows to be the butt of a joke in a crowded elementary school lunch room. (Lunch rooms have changed, but bullies are just older and paid better when they harass me.) Like Sleeping Beauty I’ve been socially unconscious for a while; unlike Sleeping Beauty, I aged while I was out. So now, I feel especially vulnerable at just the exact moment I am determined to take back my life. I look around the overstocked attic that is my creative mind and wonder why it is that it happens to be the Magic Potion that I have misplaced. I need it now, if only to keep convincing myself that this writing thing can continue to be done in between semesters and maybe degrees, in between job hunting and future jobs, tucked neatly and scheduled in the high desert corners of Life, and it’s all about self-discipline. After all, there is no difference between scheduling writing time and buying season tickets to something else… Having finally reconnected with the Muse after so many years and delusions, I fear losing touch again – of being lured too far into everyone else’s world and losing the coordinates of my creative latitude left baking on that desert island.
No, for me the trouble is that it takes a preternaturally long time to swim to that desert island my Muse calls home…The one place I can’t hear my own subconscious suggest I really should get that second job or a better first one, where I can forget the names and faces of the many bullies that ultimately cost me so much of my self-confidence. Writers, it seems, attract an abysmally high number of those despicable creatures throughout their lives. Is it because we know who we are and what makes us happy? Is it because a few perfect phrases on paper can make us radiant for a day?
I confess. I’ve rubbed out many of my enemies with the flick of a shift key. A horde of ugly-minded former coworkers lie writhing in the bellies of hideous monsters created on desolate nights when there was nothing on Monster.com to apply for (may they rot in putrid juices until William Shatner again plays Captain Kirk on the Big Screen). And I freely admit I am happiest in total isolation surrounded by my books and the ghosts of dead Horror writers. Perhaps I am naturally anti-social, and therefore I am a writer. Or perhaps I write and therefore became anti-social…Obviously this argument is too chicken-and-eggie for most amateur philosophers. But the truth remains: some of us do not do our fictional best when tormented by others on the playground.
I need my desert island. I tried to compensate: I started working my way up different corporate ladders – although I never made it too far before somebody dissolved the ladder (the good news: when you are on a lower rung, you have less of a distance to fall). I reasoned that if I made it out of the entry-level cesspool, coworkers would be more professional and leave me alone, and the pay would be better allowing me more time to write. This, I discovered, was faulty reasoning. Still a writer, still happy, still a target. Add a few Loyalty Tests in the workplace and that darned island drifts farther and farther away.
Nor does it help to require higher monetary compensation for the inconveniencing of the Muse. Better paychecks do not create nurturing writing environments (although they buy way more chocolate and cool stuff). Generally this is because today’s jobs tend to require Human Sacrifice: i.e., you give up your entire life, and we will let you work here until we tire of you. This stress translates to the La Brea Tar Pits of Creativity. Mental energy is literally wasted on trying to decipher and placate the emotions of people who decorate their desks with anti-psychotics and Stress-Tabs. Story ideas leak out of your head at board meetings and employee conferences, then evaporate into bottles of Gingko Biloba faster than you can say Rumplestiltskin. This is the Push-Me, Pull-You of a working person who is also a writer.
I’m ready to commit, I tell you. I can concentrate on work if I’m allowed to concentrate on writing the rest of the time. Still the mind clings to theories, plotting strange negotiations with the Fates. You know just the co-worker you would slather with Monster-Chow in times of distress; you’ve got a Plan. But plans fail, time goes by, and the stories are beginning to rot in your mind. How to get them out safely, intact, and in between everything else…
While developing plot, you spot your antagonist driving a flashy sports car at an intersection, and forget why you are thinking about him by the time you get home, get dinner fixed, get dinner cleaned up, hubby tucked in, cat box cleaned and the alarm clock set. When the Muse prods you at 3:00 a.m. (mine tends to stop by apparently after the bars close), your mind settles neatly around the frustrations of the job that lies in wait to tickle your ulcers whole hours from then. In an obvious act of defiance, the Muse whispers a whole storyline in your ear while you are trying to take dictation or balance a financial report; you save just enough detail to actually write the story down – sort of – and then you find the story has already been done. Synchronicity or spite? The faeries will never tell – not even if you feed them one by one to a squid-faced monster from outer space.
So this becomes a quandary. I have at times loathed my jobs for the mental energy they robbed from me in exchange for no job security. I know I am the type who would drive to the middle of the Mojave and live in a RV just to be left alone to write. I understand the consuming desire for isolation, for technological silence. Yet there are ways to have a little piece of the Mojave in your home: I say let reality TV be your guide. Turn it off. Turn it off for days until you can once again hear yourself think. We can do this, I argue, it’s just a little blip on the radar…
I have developed my own desert island, complete with pictures of palm trees. It still takes a while to get there, but I am getting better at swimming the channel. I turn off the music and the drone of the television, listening only to the hum of the hard drive. I’ve started cleaning out my attic, leaving Reese’s Pieces in a trail to lure the Muse back from her Winter Digs away from academia. I am surrounded by the dreams I have re-collected from childhood (although I still want a pony) and am seeking just the right infernal place to drop the more malignant ghosts from those more distasteful memories the wrong people managed to acid-burn into my mind. Surely there is a place for them in a Horror story yet to be written. I refuse to give up: No retreat, no surrender…
Although it wouldn’t hurt to buy a punching clown as well…you know, just for those moments when coworkers or former bosses intrude into your thoughts… But learning to navigate silence is what brings back the creativity. Creativity lives in a quiet space, just south of a safe place. You can rebuild that safe place by constructing a mental fort to keep the rest of the world out. This is like the forts of childhood – where kitchen chairs and sheets became impenetrable fortresses. The walls are in your imagination, suggested by physical prompts such as the closing of a door. There should be no distractions… No phones unless we’re talking two Dixie cups and a string. There should be Muse charms, plot lures, and maybe a troll doll or two. Infrared glasses are also good – they will help in spotting Morlocks when you successfully initiate the engines of your time machine.
Writing is like that. It is making a magic circle from which to conjure story. It means knowing better than to step outside the chalk markings without the necessary talismans. It also means keeping that outside job in perspective – even if it means you must feed some people-snacks to carefully conjured monsters. There is one singular important truth those of us who write and must work have to remember: Writing is who you are… Leave the Cog Business to those who work hard to be professional martyrs. Don’t waste your own energy. Go to your happy place. And take no one with you (unless you expect something dark and drooling to get hungry).