Category Archives: creativity

The A to Z Challenge, or I’ve Lost My Mind

[Note: I’m making this a sticky post for April, so new visitors will know what’s going on. Scroll down to the next post for the most recent entry. Edit to add: If you don’t feel like scrolling, here’s the link to the first part of the story (there will be 26 parts, eventually): A is for Avalanche]

I’ve been in a creative rut lately. No, not that kind of rut. More of a slump. I’m sure there are many complex reasons for this and probably I should go talk to a psychologist and spend months, perhaps years, getting in touch with my deepest . . . whatever.

But what fun is that?

A2Z-BADGE 2016-smaller_zpslstazvibInstead, I’ve decided to shake things up a bit. My creativity has always been fueled by laughter and silliness, and I’ve become much too serious and focused on the need for “perfection” in my writing. Like that’s ever going to happen. So I’ve entered the A to Z Challenge for April 2016. You can click that link for details, but the idea is to post a blog entry every day in April, excluding Sundays, each featuring a word beginning with a (consecutive) letter of the alphabet.

I considered just picking random words and writing a short thing about each one, but that didn’t seem particularly interesting or challenging. Or sufficiently terrifying. So I’ve decided to tell a story. I have no idea what this story is about or who’s in it or even where it’s set. I don’t know the genre or anything about the plot. It’s likely the length, and coherency, of the posts will vary wildly. I’m totally winging it.

Oh dear god, what the hell am I even thinking. But that’s sort of the point– to stop thinking so damn much.

I anticipate this will be a rousing success. Or it will be a complete and utter disaster and I’ll have to delete my entire blog — yes, all of it — and go into hiding. Or maybe it’ll just be a lot of fun and highly entertaining.

Don’t expect this story to make sense and we all should be fine. Probably.

If you’d like to help “guide” the story along, feel free to suggest a word or two in advance. I suspect I’m going to need all the help I can get. We start tomorrow with A.

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It’s hard to “bleed on the page” when you’re actually bleeding

I don’t think physical pain has ever made me cry. Emotional pain, yes. And sure, when I was a little kid and fell off my bike, probably I cried. But I’ve had a lot of physical pain in my life since then and I can’t recall that it has ever made me cry. I’m not claiming to be tough. Total wimp, here. Pain just doesn’t provoke that response in me.

Which is sort of funny, if you know me well, because everything makes me cry. Those commercials where the Clydesdales unexpectedly come home from college with their renegade golden retriever puppy friends in tow and wake up their mom when they brew beer for their under-age siblings on Christmas morning and it’s snowing outside? Yep, total waterworks. My kids often joke that I’ll even cry over a bad weather forecast. I’m not quite that bad, but it’s close.

Well, it’s been several weeks, almost a month now since the knee replacement surgery, and I’ve had some of the worst pain I’ve ever experienced. Yes, the narcotic pain meds helped, a lot, but it’s been pretty bad.

Not once did it make me cry, or even want to cry. Instead, my reaction has been to shut down and withdraw, in every way possible. To build impenetrable walls. Dealing with this pain has required every molecule of my concentration and focus. The kind of focus where you don’t want anyone to even talk to you, lest it break the concentration needed to endure.

Giving myself a shot in the stomach (anti-coagulant) one a day for 14 days didn't help.

Giving myself a shot in the stomach (anti-coagulant) once a day for 14 days didn’t help.

But it’s not tears I’ve been holding back. It’s temper. Anger. An irrational welling of primal rage. Like a wounded animal with no capacity for reason, wanting to lash out at everyone and everything around me, never mind that they had no part in causing the pain, never mind that I signed up for this pain. But I’m not a snarling feral beast, so I’ve reined in even that strongest of emotions.

I suppose that sounds overly dramatic. Yeah, well, it has felt pretty dramatic around here at times.

The White Ninja, wondering whether she'll ever be allowed to sit in my lap again.

The White Ninja wondering whether she’ll ever be allowed to climb on my lap again.

There’s a saying attributed to military types that I’ve always disliked, because it’s utter fucking bullshit. Probably you know the one I mean: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” As if pain somehow makes a person stronger. No, the hell it does not.

But for the first time, I sort of understand where this saying comes from. Pain, extreme pain, makes you shut down your emotions. And it makes sense to me that military types equate emotion with weakness. So I can see how, from their perspective, getting rid of emotion is getting rid of weakness.

For a writer, though, emotions are strength. Facing emotion, exploring it, poking at and manipulating it, is a necessity. It requires extraordinary mental fortitude.

In his book, STEIN ON WRITING, Sol Stein says this about the difference between fiction and non-fiction:

“Let us state the difference in the simplest way.
Nonfiction conveys information.
Fiction evokes emotion.”

To me, this is a fundamental truth. People read and enjoy and, most importantly, remember great fiction because of how it makes them feel.

Sure, we can quibble over the black and white of this premise, that fiction can also impart information and do all sorts of things other than just evoke emotion. I won’t argue that point, because of course it does. But the primary purpose of storytelling is to evoke emotion. Different genres, different emotions; all the same purpose.

As a writer, I feel those emotions first. When I write a scene that I hope will make a reader feel sad or angry or afraid, I’m going to be crying or fuming or trembling while I write it. This is the reason certain parts of a book are so difficult to write. I’m putting my characters through an emotional wringer, but I’m right there with them.

I imagine there are writers who are more experienced or more talented than I am who can accomplish this in their work without feeling those emotions. Without feeling vulnerable. I wish it worked that way for me. It doesn’t.

So it’s a bit of a problem, as a writer, when you’re in pain and your emotions are locked down tighter than– a thing that is tight [this is my brain on drugs, kids]. In a first or even a second draft, this wouldn’t matter quite as much. For me, the early drafts are just putting characters where they’re supposed to be and seeing what happens. It’s very dialog driven. I make vague notes about internal stuff like what they’re thinking and how it probably makes them feel. I add that stuff in later, along with physical description.

I suck at this, especially physical description. “They were in the woods. There were trees. Yeah, lots of trees. And stuff.”

Sigh.

Sadly, the two projects I’m working on are no longer at the draft stage where I can get away with saying, “And then there were emotions. And stuff.” They’re at the stage where I need to be vulnerable. That doesn’t come easily to me, even under the best circumstances. I need to be able to feel what the characters feel in order for it to have any hope of coming across as authentic to the reader. And I haven’t been able to do that. Honestly, I haven’t even tried in the past month. Actually, for longer than that, as I started to shut down emotionally even before surgery. In self-defense. Anticipating pain.

While there are still ups and downs, I’m finally getting to the point in recovery where the pain is no longer the all-consuming, steal-your-breath-away, hold-very-still-and-concentrate ordeal that it was the first few weeks. I’m also making good progress on weaning myself off the narcotic pain meds, which didn’t make me loopy after all. They just make me sleepy (and unable to come up with blog-appropriate similes). I’ve been taking all sorts of impromptu naps.

The really interesting part of recovery and physical therapy has been the insistence that I try things I don’t think I’m ready to try. Within hours after surgery, a pair of drill sergeants deceptively pleasant therapists came into my hospital room and said “we” were going to stand up and maybe walk a bit. I wanted to laugh and say, “Yeah, right. You’re welcome to try, but this ain’t gonna happen.” But I stood up and they shoved a walker in front of me and we by god walked right out of that room and down the hall to the window and back. Of course, I was still drugged to the gills and wouldn’t have felt any pain if they’d curled me up and rolled me down the hall like a bocce ball at the beach, but still. I did it.

They sent me home the day after surgery, which I still find a bit mind-boggling considering what they did to me. Below is a print out of the actual x-ray of my actual knee, two weeks post-surgery, moments after they removed 37 actual metal staples from the incision. That was fun. Apparently, HIPPA rules say I can’t take a picture of an x-ray, even if it’s of my own body part. Hence the print out.

That horizontal

That white horizontal line isn’t anything cool, like maybe a laser beam; it’s a fold in the paper.

Yes, I have pics of the incision at various stages. No, I’m not going to post them.

I was ready to stay in the hospital an entire week, simply because the food was that good. I’m not kidding. It was fantastic and I didn’t even have to clean up the kitchen afterward. But they said I’d made remarkable progress and was ready to go home. They were right.

Lunch:

Lunch: tender grilled chicken, herb roasted potatoes, steamed zucchini slices, fresh fruit (not shown)

The in-home PT has been more of the same. The woman I’ve been working with is tough and insistent, without being mean. There’s no way I could do that job. Not effectively. I’m full of admiration and gratitude. She, too, is amazed by my progress and has pushed me way past what I thought were my limits.

Two instances stand out. The first one was an exercise to strengthen my hamstring muscle. It’s something I simply couldn’t have done, pre-surgery, as damaged as my knees are. I’ve had ample experience with how much that particular movement hurts. The second was walking down a set of stairs, leading with my non-surgical still-messed-up leg and relying on the so-called strength of the one they’d sliced to bits, mere weeks ago. The one that was still hurting and not even close to being fully healed.

I gave the PT a dubious look, but not trying wasn’t even an option. I am nothing if not determined.

Both times, I braced myself physically and emotionally for what I was sure was going to be excruciating pain. Pain that I knew, from years and years of frustrating experience, was going to happen. Both times, no doubt in my mind, this was going to fucking hurt.

It didn’t.

And with that realization, both times, I fought back tears.

I think I’m almost ready to get back to writing.

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Reflections on creativity and depression and obsession

The suicide death of Robin Williams a few days ago hit me hard, as it did so many other people. I’ve been trying to figure out why, as I can’t really say I was a “huge fan” of his. Not the way some people are. I haven’t seen all of his movies, or watched all of his TV appearances, or listened to all of his recordings. What I have seen of his work, I’ve enjoyed immensely. I certainly admired the man’s comic genius that bordered on insanity.

If I’m honest, a part of me always felt unsettled, inexplicably and vaguely afraid, while watching him perform. Because his comedy was so extreme, so wildly unrestrained, it really did border on insanity. A part of me, the tiny part that wasn’t laughing, somehow sensed there was a dangerous flip side, an equally extreme down side to all that manic genius.

I’ve felt that way watching other performers, mostly comedians, especially early in their careers. George Carlin, Richard Pryor, John Belushi, Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, all the Monty Python guys. Huh. I just realized they’re all men. No idea what that signifies, if anything.

All of them had that same wild talent for pushing at various boundaries, for giving performances that were over the top, or right at the edge, or on the verge of madness. God, what huge risks they took. Not just with whether their manic highs would resonate with an audience, but risking the devastation of what I suspect were the inevitable lows. Now, I don’t know this for sure. I never saw any of them “come down” from a performance, never saw the exhaustion or the toll it took. But it seems likely. It falls in line with Newton’s Third Law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Extreme highs, extreme lows. And a part of me always rather desperately hoped they had it all under control. More so than it appeared from the outside.

In my experience — and I’ll grant you that my experience is on a vastly smaller scale — those highs and lows are different from depression. I know creativity and depression are linked, but I don’t believe it’s an absolute and inevitable link, just as I don’t know whether those people I mentioned had or have depression. Reportedly, Robin Williams did. Apparently, he’d also recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

It feels important to make the distinction between depression and the highs and lows of creativity. Depression, to me, is not the extreme low point on the rollercoaster of creativity that some people think it is, but more of a stifling thing. A chemical process in the brain that levels off both the highs and lows and has more of a dampening effect, a dulling of the senses, a loss of caring, an overriding hopelessness. Guilt, shame, denial. Dread. Profound emotional isolation. I’ve come to wonder whether depression is the brain’s way of protecting itself from, and trying to prevent, the extremes of creativity. That seems to make sense. To me.

But I’m not any kind of scientist and have no authority to say that other than “it seems to make sense.” Bear in mind that, when I was a child, I was convinced that squirrels could talk. If they wanted to. That made sense to me too. So, grain of salt. I suspect my parents went out of their way to shield me from any and all versions of Doctor Dolittle.

Joking aside, I’m not making light of depression. It’s a horrible disease and I’m sure the science of it is a far more complex and difficult thing than I could ever comprehend.

Anyway. Back to trying to make sense of why this particular death hit me so hard. I still don’t know and perhaps never will. Why Robin Williams? I’m a sucker for the combination of intelligence and humour and he certainly had both, but it was more than that, with him. I think it was his eyes. Whatever intangible quality he had, it was in his eyes. Don’t ask me to explain that because I don’t think I can. There was just something genuine and compelling in his eyes.

Or maybe it’s simply that I feel too much. I have an excess of empathy. It has always been a problem for me, although I try to convince myself that’s an asset for a writer.

Pieces of this quote have been teasing at the back of my brain, so I looked it up and decided to share it here:

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him, a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.” ~Pearl S. Buck

It’s the “abnormally, inhumanly sensitive” part that has been resonating with me the past few days. The words “a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy” have been cycling in my mind. And I don’t mean as a description of Robin Williams, although certainly it could apply to him, but to describe myself.

Part of what I mean when I say “this has hit me hard” is that, for whatever reason, there is an obsessive component at work. Something about this man, and his death, has struck a chord and my brain has become a bit like a tuning fork that continues to vibrate long after it should have gone still. I recognize this because it’s something I’ve experienced before. Many times.

Part of my focus as a writer, my job if you will, is to understand and evoke emotion. I don’t know which came first, my desire to write or my fascination with emotion and psychology. So when people or events touch my emotions deeply, I tend to get sucked in and drown in it. When it happens to this degree and becomes obsessive, what it means, for me, is that I need to step away from it.

Twitter and Facebook and news sites offer up links to a flood of grief and remembrance. The entire internet is full of anecdotes and stories, not just of who the man was and what he meant to so many people, but also stories of other people who struggle with depression. These are all good and worthy and valuable things to share. Respect and gratitude to those who are able to do so. But every single one of them reduces me to tears and subjects me to welling emotion until my entire being feels like a giant raw exposed nerve. I can’t read them any more.

I have to remind myself that while we all share in the loss of this man, it is not personal to me. I didn’t know him. I never met him. It is not a blow to me personally, it is not my personal tragedy. I have to remind myself that I AM abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. That I care too much.

The point of me talking about this publicly in a blog post, rather than just filing it away in my mind as yet another example of my own vulnerability and instability, is that I see other people who appear to be struggling the same way I am. Part of the “problem” with knowing so many other writers and creative types (honestly, it’s a blessing, not a problem) is that a disproportionate number of my friends and acquaintances are equally sensitive, in various ways. We all care too much. And as much as I want to, I can’t make myself dismiss the reports saying that suicide, especially celebrity suicide, can be “contagious.”

If, like me, you’re one of those too sensitive people, I want you to know it’s okay to step away. It’s perfectly acceptable to skip reading that story or not click on that link. It is perhaps even necessary in order to protect yourself.

I’m not kidding. Step away if you need to. I did.

I’ve been mostly offline the past few days, doing ordinary mundane things. I deliberately tackled the most daunting project in my house, the one that has been the primary recipient of my formidable powers of procrastination: my dining room. That place where all the irritating, non-urgent miscellany of my life goes to await its fate. Stuff that you hesitate to throw away because it might be important, maybe, someday, but you’re not sure when or why. The kind of stuff that becomes obsolete with time but that you never quite get around to throwing out. Or maybe that’s just me.

Well, I’ve gotten around to it in a big way this week. Among the things I’ve disposed of are the user’s manuals and warranty information for two different cell phones, neither of which I’m still using, and the user’s manual for a TI-83 Plus calculator that I haven’t even seen since the kids were in high school. There was also warranty information and a user’s guide for the toaster. Who the hell needs a user’s guide for a toaster? And why didn’t I throw it away immediately? Maybe I thought I’d need it if the toaster was defective and I had to return it? Who knows.

Every so often I take a break and do a brief check of social media. Nope, not safe yet. Not for me, anyway. So I tackle the next stack of ancient dusty paper. An invitation to and course book for The Cambridge College Programme, a “thank you for visiting” letter from another college with my child’s name misspelled, a college semester grade transcript. All go into the trash/recycling.

It’s not that I’ve been keeping this stuff on purpose. Although, looking at some of it, I’m starting to wonder whether I’m one of those hoarders. No, there was a time when these things would have been important, depending on various decisions. But then that time came . . . and went . . . and the stuff stayed. Expanded to fit the space available. Someone should invent paper that disappears once its usefulness has passed.

And then there are the cardboard boxes. Okay, I might be a hoarder of those. *cringe* It always seems like there might be a good use for a box of a certain size. You know? Well, two or three seems reasonable, but no one needs as many as I’d mysteriously accumulated. So those are now broken down, flattened, and put into the recycling as well.

My dining room is starting to look like a dining room again. For now.

You might be thinking it’s ironic that in trying not to obsess about something, I’ve written a lengthy blog post on the topic. But I’ve found that putting a thing in writing is often the easiest way for me to stop thinking about it. Getting the words out of my head and into this post is not as counter-intuitive as it might seem. Doing so is as necessary to my mental health as the more symbolic physical manifestation of getting rid of worthless old papers and boxes. It frees up the space and energy necessary to fan the spark of other creative pursuits.

For, as Robin Williams wisely said:

“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”

Keep an eye on yours. If you’re at the point where “a sound is a noise” then turn off the noise. Control the input and turn it off if you have to.

If you need more help than simply shutting down the internet provides, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255. No shame, no excuses, no overwhelming aloneness, just help.

Take care of yourself.

 

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Dreams

I saw this quote the other day and it resonates with me as a thing that holds truth:

“A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.” -John Barrymore

And on a related note, I’m shamelessly stealing this XKCD comic from my good friend Merry’s blog, who in turn shamelessly stole shared it in accordance with XKCD’s generous policy of posting work under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.

Because it says perfectly what I’ve been feeling lately.

What are you doing with your dreams? Are you actively pursuing them or have you allowed yourself to become old and filled with regrets?

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A few words about courage

I had intended to write a post about the things I learned in the process of self-publishing my book. And someday I will. Once I figure out what those things are and what they mean. And how to say them.

But that’s for another day. I’m sure you all are as tired of hearing about it as I am of telling you about it. Even so, this post is related to that effort.

Every year, Neil Gaiman writes a wish for the New Year. These posts are unfailingly excellent, in their simplicity and honesty and charm, but also in their ability to inspire the artist in each of us.

Drawing attention to something Gaiman wrote on his blog feels as absurd and presumptuous as re-tweeting something he said on twitter. I mean, really, the man has 1.67 million followers on twitter. Probably more than that read his blog. Is there anyone who hasn’t seen this?

Actually, yes. I suspect there are a few people who read my blog who don’t read his. Who might not even be entirely sure of who he is. In other words, people who don’t read any of the forty-billion genres in which he writes and people who are not writers.

There are two or three. And yes, they read my blog. Probably.

But the main reason I want to share a part of Gaiman’s 2012 post over here is because it struck a very personal chord with me this year, more so even than other years, and that’s saying something. Because this is something I decided for myself last fall. Not to set out to make a mistake, necessarily — I doubt anyone intends to do that — but to be willing to do something that might be a mistake. And do it anyway. With the intention that if it turned out to be a mistake, it would be the most awesome and remarkable and unique mistake in the entire history of– well, of all my mistakes at least. So far.

Hell, Gaiman says it better:

And for this year, my wish for each of us is small and very simple.

And it’s this.

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

Feels amazing to realize Neil Gaiman finally caught up with me. [I’m kidding, people] But it does feel like a small benediction. And sometimes that’s all we need.

The rest of his post — yes, there’s more to it, including wishes from past years — can be found here. Go read it. There’s a reason he has all those followers.

And then go out and make some mistakes of your own. Because I could use the company. But mostly because it feels incredibly good to Do Something.

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