Creation Anxiety

As you know, I follow the One You Feed podcast. An emerging concept from the multiple guests and discussions over the past few months is the impact that Depression has on project-related work.

Specifically: Depression causes paralysis.

For those of us who willingly or unwillingly partake of project work (and I’m not just discussing creative project work here), paralysis—by which I mean just the idea of performing project-related tasks stuns us into non-activity or distracting behavior—is terminal.

We procrastinate, we crank our mental cogs, we keep ourselves awake at night, all because the idea of doing the work is a fifteen story tall, one hundred acre wide monolith that we can’t see over or around.

So we don’t do anything.

For me, being exquisitely hardwired for anxiety, I vamp on the above a little differently. When I bloody my nose against that immense project monolith, I don’t go into paralysis mode; I go into worry mode. The specific next tasks for the project—be they researching, drafting, holding meetings, or just getting my ass in a chair—blur into a fog of self-doubt and ceaseless self-talk about how I can’t possibly ever get what needs doing done.

The solution that Eric Zimmer recommends in several One You Feed podcasts is to break up the many tasks into smaller, easier-to-complete items. This gibes completely with the discipline of Project Management, whereby the Project Manager creates a Work Breakdown Structure and starts chipping that monolith into 8 hour increments.

8 hour increments function well for us in the work world, but 8 hour increments don’t (necessarily) lend themselves to our creative endeavors where many of us who are creating in-between our other life commitments are lucky to get any time at all.

So piggy-backing on Zimmer’s advice, find a time increment that works for your schedule and fill that time doing something/anything for your project. (In my case, the time increment is somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour) Even if it’s ‘draft Chapter one’ or ‘write two stanzas’ or ‘read about pudding wrestling.’ Make a plan; execute the plan.

Much of project work is giving yourself a sense of control. The way to gain control is to take action. Not action for the sake of action, but directive action. It is amazing how my anxiety level drops at least by half once I figure out the next few project steps, and I get even one of those steps completed.

There are aspects you won’t be able control, of course. I recently had a character emerge in the draft of my WIP who has upended my entire—MY ENTIRE—novel plot outline. Strangely, that’s not the part of the project work that’s frightening or paralyzing. I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t want the work to transport me to places I didn't expect.

No, what causes me anxiety is all the spinning I do before I type one word. My anxiety begets more anxiety.

Every project has its own challenges; every project has its own lessons. There will be mistakes, there will be pain (hell, there will be blood!), but if we examine our fears or our collective paralysis, if we really look at it, we recognize that future suffering isn’t why we haven’t started. The reason we haven’t started is because we haven’t started.

So, even if it’s messy, even if it’s awful, even if it’s (especially if it’s) imperfect, let’s get started.

When the Drummer Wants to Be the Singer

No one wants to be Ringo.

It’s nothing against Ringo, per se (although Ringo gets a lot of crap for not being as good a musician as the rest of the Fab Four—and while I admit I once thought this, too—I now recognize that his unique, melodic drumming was the perfect compliment to the Beatles’ music). And it’s not really even about the Beatles and their media-fabricated ‘personalities’ – smart, sarcastic John; romantic, dreamy Paul; quiet, spiritual George.

It’s about the role of the drummer.

So let’s pretend that our complex, individual and multi-faceted lives can be distilled into the configuration of the classic four-piece rock band. In that archetypal arrangement, the drummer is the worker, the drone, the time-keeper (the job is different if you’re drumming for Jimi Hendrix or if you play jazz, and there are hundreds of exceptions, but we’re talking about the rule here – in rock music, drummers keep time). On stage, the drummer is pushed back behind the band, and although s/he has the capacity to be the loudest and most distracting member, s/he is the one whose presence you’re made aware of by her or his absence.

In other words you should only notice a good drummer when the music demands that you do. More than anyone else on that stage, the drummer’s job is to maintain the song’s structure, its volume and its speed, while the other members are free to emote, to solo, and to stand in the blare and brightness at the center of attention. As the drummer you are in the ultimate support role.

This is why drummers want to be singers. Why be a support player when you could be the star?

Ego, though, is a quirky, fickle and demanding little beast. Using myself as an example, I often have two conflicting narratives running inside my head at the same time:

I’m better than this; I’m not good enough for this.

I’ve centered my spiritual work of late on my ego. I’m one of those people who denies the insistence and existence of his own ego because I sense that being ego-driven is spiritually stifling, but then I unconsciously operate out of my own self-interest despite myself. One of the most valuable recent lessons has been realizing how much I pin on outcomes. How much of my life I put on hold until X or Y is accomplished. Right now, I’m having to wrestle with my career goals (goals I didn’t even know I had) while at the same time nurturing my creative and familial needs.

What role does ego play in this? What role should ego play in this? I don’t know anything more than I can’t change and grow without some ego-investment. I can’t write books or contribute to my family without some sense of ego-investment. I’m beginning to equate being egoless with being fearless -- being fearless doesn’t mean we live without fear; it means we acknowledge the fear and do what we must. Is it the same with ego? That rather than negate ego, we should acknowledge our ego-involvement, recognize ego’s role in what we’re doing, and then act?

Going back to the rock band, and to the Beatles, and to the roles we all ultimately play in the stage production of our lives. We’re all here to serve the music. Yeah, we also back up the other members in our band, and yes we also perform to the crowd, but ultimately, it’s the music that we serve. Ego becomes a problem when we fixate on the attention that the singer is getting, or when we obsess about the crowd’s reaction. But when we focus on the music, on the music-making, ego finds its rightful size and role and context.


Fall of the Fisher King: Farewell Robin Williams

Others have eulogized him more eloquently and with more poignancy, but I can’t avoid writing about Robin Williams.

For me, Williams’ stage performances, those incandescent flights of furious delight, almost always eclipse everything else the man did. Whenever I read arguments over whether comedy is art, Williams is why the answer is a definitive ‘yes.’

My favorite performance was from the early 1980s when Williams was hosting a young comics competition (probably on HBO, although I can’t find the clip) and in the few minutes he was on stage, he transmogrified the crowd (and those watching at home) into a gasping, convulsing wreck. In a ‘normal’ Williams performance, there was build-up, escalation, and then as he wove connections that were always just right, transcendence. Then the man would dial it back so you could breathe again.

No so during this hosting gig. He had such little time on stage, there was no gradual uplift, there was only a brilliant yet maniacal assault that wrecked everyone (including the unfortunate young comics forced to follow him onto the stage he had just incinerated).

Although I had respected the man’s acting (especially in Dead Poet’s Society), I never bought him as a dramatic actor until 1991’s The Fisher King. Besides being one of my favorite movies of all time, besides the amazing magic-realism script, the superb direction, the anarchic set design, and the spot-on performances, what Williams finally managed to do was bring to film the same emotionally assaultive show of force he had up to then only unleashed on stage.

Terry Gilliam’s comments about directing Williams in The Fisher King are insightful. 

For some reason, upon hearing of Williams’ suicide, I couldn’t shake memories of Williams’ 1991 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show that I must have first seen around the time I watched The Fisher King. It’s not in this clip, but during the audience participation segment, one of the attendees lays out how Williams’ film performances have followed the trajectory of his personal tribulations with the idea that, with The Fisher King, he had finally achieved redemption, that he had finally beaten back his depression, his addictions, that he had finally defeated the Red Knight.

If only that were so.

We can’t know what finally drove Williams to take his own life. We can speculate that the rip-currents of depression had become too strong to swim against, that the seductive song of alcohol couldn’t be ignored, that it was in fact a diagnosis of Parkinson’s that pushed him to end it. Explanations in these circumstances are comforting at first but they ultimately don’t substitute for the person that we’ve lost. Especially a mega-someone, a wondrous human hurricane of a someone.

Robin Williams is lost to us. There is nothing we can do to make this reality easier to face. Sometimes, the Red Knight wins.

When someone of Williams’ stature loses a battle with depression and addiction, the event sends a message easy to misinterpret: ‘Well, shit, if Robin Williams can’t beat it, how can I?” But Williams was a devoted humanist who probably kept going as long as he did because of his love of other people. I have to believe that Williams wouldn’t want those who similarly suffer from depression and addiction to surrender, even if he did.

Defeating the Red Knight, then, is only ever a transient victory. A victory won in moments, not in days or in months or in years. Yes, we can fight our depression, our anxiety, our addictions for a time, but we have to acknowledge that we’ve only won right now. And the next moment may well bring another full-frontal assault against us, so we must be ever vigilant, and we must always stay strong. Always.

It can be exhausting.

But we must also remember the flipside: in those darkest moments, when the Red Knight has chased us down, and there seems no end to our suffering, the next moment may yet bring us back to equilibrium, may yet bring us back to strength, may yet bring us back to laughter, and perhaps, may yet bring us all the way up to transcendence.

Just as Robin Williams did for us time and time again.

Ambition Gnaws the Paws of Success*: Does Creativity Only Generate from Discontent?

(*With apologies to U2)

Thanks to a coworker’s recommendation, I’ve been catching up on a new podcast called The One You Feed

An engaging topic that hosts Eric Zimmer and Chris Forbes highlight in their latest podcast with ABC News Correspondent Dan Harris is the intersection of mindfulness and ambition.

If you are practicing (and struggling at) being in the NOW, accepting what is here with you as it is, where does orchestrating a long-term artistic/professional/spiritual goal fit?

This got me reflecting on an even deeper question: What drives an artist to create?

Many of the seekers and wanderers I’ve encountered over the years were catapulted onto their trajectories by negative experiences and/or hostile relationships. Many of us have sought within our passions the resolution to old conflicts, wholeness to remake the broken pieces we carry with us, answers to the tragedies we have witnessed or endured.

It’s a familiar trope, right?

But how long can we sustain this reaction to a perceived negative event or toxic relationship as the engine for our creativity? When does relying on pain to fuel our artistic or spiritual endeavors cause us harm or undermine our practices?

I’ve known that I wanted to write—to be an author of stories and books—since I was eight or nine. I was always a dreamer of a kid, stuck inside my imagination, and the divorce of my parents and the departure of my father from my life found me out of synch with many of my classmates and friends. Part of what I was looking for even then was a tacit acceptance. Call it love or appreciation or even adulation, there was an ego-driven need to be identified as a writer so that I could feel better about myself. This neediness only deepened through my adolescence, especially after I discovered music and rock and roll posturing (what Brian Eno calls ‘Negative ambition…the thing you’re pushing against.”) And it stayed strong throughout my twenties.

Something shifted in my thirties and continues to evolve in my forties, though. I got bored of the same negatively-framed narrative I kept repeating to myself. My non-artistic life had—despite my most self-destructive efforts—become a life I enjoyed thanks to my second marriage, my children, my job, my friendships. And as I’ve mentioned before several times in this blog, I gave up writing for a while, and giving up felt wonderful. (In retrospect, giving up the artist-as-damaged-goods paradigm was probably what felt so blissful.)

Eventually, I found I missed writing. I missed the act of creating. As I began again, the impulse to make art came from a different, simpler place – I write because it’s what I do.

None of this happened by design. It was all a result of my usual bumping and flopping about. But somehow the fulfillment I’ve found in my craft has nothing to do with accolades or acknowledgement outside my own skull; it has to do with my relationship to the works themselves. Novels and stories present themselves to me, and I am obligated to do my best to bring them into the world (however slow and excruciating that process may be).

That’s not the end of it, though. I do want to publish my novels and stories, and I do want as many people as possible to read what I’ve written. I don’t deny this ambition. Stories are meant to be shared, and if I can add my own to the many others already out there while maybe making a little money doing so, well, that would be gravy. 

So I come back around to the question raised in the podcast: where does ambition fit?

The advice that Harris repeats—by way of what he’s read and studied—is to not invest in the outcome. 

I don’t know what I think about this. How the hell do we not invest in the outcomes of an endeavor that we’ve spent hundreds of hours partaking in? I don’t care how egoless any of us pretend to be, we all invest in the outcomes. That’s just what we do.

But there you go: Work hard, do your best, and don’t invest in the outcomes. Chop wood. Carry water.

There's more, though. I have found all these accidental friends and compatriots and family while partaking in the most challenging endeavors of my life: adolescence, writing, parenting, coping with anxiety. The lesson I learn and re-learn (and re-learn) is that if you keep the frustrations and the struggles to yourself, you’re not going to get anywhere. If you share, others will come forward. As ever, if you open yourself to the life around you, and you allow yourself to be vulnerable and say, “This is who I am” others will respond, most of them positively.

Paths are not meant to be wandered alone. Loneliness is a fabrication of ego, too, this thinking that we are somehow unique in our successes or our failures (especially our failures). Be here now, yes, and more importantly, be here now together. 

The Play's The Thing: Rethinking the Concept of Play in Art and Life

“Why would you want to kill animals?” The hippie dad of one of my playmates asked.

Sunshine’s dad was a real hippie – long hair, massive beard, dazed speech patterns, and he had no qualms about approaching a marauding group of four-and five-years-olds in order to teach us a life lesson. The fact that he was nude didn’t concern him, even as it alarmed us.

“Why are you pretending to hurt animals?”

We had been pretending to hunt animals. There was a context that is now lost to long-gone decades. Killing animals hadn’t been the point, it was a sub-plot, a tossed-off detail. It felt strange being called out for a facet of the imaginative narrative that we had put little stake or thought into. And I remember thinking, even as five-year-old, that the hippie dad was missing the point. We knew well the difference between play and real life. None of us would actually harm an animal.

Nothing could have been clearer.  

Years later, my fiction-writing instructor, Richard Cortez Day, said to us on more than one occasion that writing should be ‘play.’ I was initially insulted by this. How could my life’s passion, my purpose, possibly be labelled something as insignificant as ‘play.’ I am an artist! I require serious validation!

At the time, I thought I understood what Day meant by this. Be adventurous, try new approaches, take risks. And I suppose he did (probably) mean those things, but as I’ve aged and endured more of life’s sometimes painful lessons, I think he was getting at a deeper and more essential truth.

Stuart Brown has for years studied the effects of play on its participants. It’s easy to discount his field of study as being the problem of affluent Westerners, until he points out that play is integral not just to a human’s initial development but also to his/her life-long maturation and growth, regardless of race, economic status, or region. Play is important. Play is serious. Play is necessary. To all of us.

Left on my own, I tend to take the activities I do involve myself in—be they family time, work, writing—seriously. I don’t mean that these activities don’t have weight or import, but my approach, my attitude, is often one of serious purpose. That adventurous five year old pissing off hippy dads is, alas, long gone. I now know too well the risks, the consequences of failure, and I often choose safe inactivity over the unknown because I have kids, a mortgage, responsibilities. Plus, fear is my go-to response to just about everything, and I don't like to feel afraid.

But re-framing even my most serious endeavors—executing in my job so that I don’t get fired, let’s say—as play, as an activity in which I inject more experimentation and risk as well as potential failure, could I then find fresh fulfillment in that work? Could I cast off the persistent pressure and shake off the fear? Could I enjoy my life more?

I don’t know, but I suspect it’s worth the attempt.