Dysfunction Junction

It’s not too much of a concern, but at some point in my self-development process I might actually get better at managing how my emotional responses lead to my actions.

I’ve been self-studying mindfulness for several years now. I’ve been meditating about as long. And like some kind of self-aware lab rat, I’ve been observing how these additions to my life have impacted my creative interests and artistic output.

Or approached another way: Can self-actualized and balanced humans still create viable art?

I suspect I’m not alone in having anchored my creative ways to that Dysfunction Junction within, that dingy place inside where I store my most painful, shameful, guilty memories.

So what happens when I—to continue the metaphor—move out those rusty cars full of stale regrets, shameful feelings, stagnant fears and clear the tracks?

And even worse to consider: do I keep that Dysfunction Junction operational because I’m afraid if I shut it down that I’ll lose my creativity?

I really don’t know how this will turn out.

On Advice of Council

I used to be better about taking time out for purely aesthetic experiences.

Granted there are legitimate obstacles to doing that these days: I have two young sons, a more than full time day job, a home and family which are certainly blessings but they bring with them more responsibilities and tasks in a given day than I once had.

Days, as you all well know, have a tendency to flow one to the other in a rush if we don’t pay attention.

Still and all, I should like to be better about taking time out to listen to music, take in a film (do they still make films; not movies, like the kind that I take my kids to, but actual films?), read some poetry or spiritual texts and contemplate.

It’s not fair to compare my life now to when I was in college, or to those rough years immediately afterward when I was apprenticing my writing (and being absolutely broke in the process). And yet I do miss giving over entire hours if not days to creative, artistic and aesthetic experiences. I miss that primal hunger.

The world being what it is, chasing beauty while we can is essential.

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.

Traveling the Travails: The Decimation of a Writing Routine

I’ve blogged before that as a traveler, I have much to learn. Not just the mechanics of how to take care of myself while on the road, but more importantly, in maintaining a proper mindset. By nature, I prefer the stability of a regular, non-traveling routine – get up early to write, commute to work, exercise, head home for (chaotic) family time, watch TV, read, go to sleep. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Routine gives my creativity a place to return to; structure gives my imagination a place to ground itself.

In other words, I’ve attempted--however poorly I may have executed it--to live Gustav Flaubert’s quote: ‘Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so you may be violent and original in your work.’

(Note: I make a terrible bourgeois.)

So I’ve carved what we’ll call my Flaubert-ality into the canals of my brain, the tissue of my body, to such a successful degree that I think if I were to die this moment, my body would still shuffle onward, hitting all the points of my schedule perfectly. Triumph!

And now, of course, this is changing.

With my recent job switch, I’m now traveling on a regular basis (this is countered by my now being able to work from home when I’m home, which is another future area of adjustment). The travel, which will likely be weekly or bi-weekly air travel, is disruptive to all levels of my being all at once. There’s the time away from family, the effects of sleeplessness on inferior beds, there’s the impact on diet, there’s the inactivity and hours of sitting and talking.

Then there’s the loss of a defined writing time.

Like almost everything else with me, it comes back to my attitude, to my accepting what is over what I want or need it to be. Where once I would have railed against the torpedo that just exploded my meticulously-honed Flaubert-ality, I’ve decided to embrace this new challenge to my artistic existence. Traveling, and how one travels, is as much a mirror of how we wander this life as our creative or spiritual activities are. If I’m a terrible traveler (which if I’m honest is a fairly apt description) it’s because I allow circumstances beyond myself, circumstances that I ultimately can’t control, to disrupt my mindset.

Rather than despair, which would have been my reaction even a few years ago, I’m leveraging the factors playing in my favor to keep on my writing schedule so that I can get my next novel written. There’s technology, for one, which allows me to access my works in progress from wherever I may be. (Thank you Google Docs and/or Windows 360.) There’s the more fluid non-work time, and although I doubt that I can actually write in the evenings wherever I may be staying, I can at least read and research and otherwise prepare for the next morning’s writing session.

I’ve devoted my post-college years to controlling the activities and relationships surrounding my creative endeavors in the false belief that doing so would somehow protect my art-making time. This didn’t accomplish what I wanted. There’s no way to shield a creative act from the world in which it is made or from the circumstances that gestated it.

What of my lovely Flaubert-ality? What of being regular and orderly? I don’t know, but perhaps discipline—getting words onto the page—has less to do with being regular and orderly, and more to do with how well you travel.

Rules for Writing – Rule #6 – Thou Shalt Do It Before You’re Ready to Do It

It took a few weeks for me to recognize that I was encountering the same concept—this idea that we must embark on a task, a project, a journey, before we feel we are ready—in a variety of areas of my life. With an inevitable confluence, many of the articles I was reading and many of the podcasts I was listening to, echoed this same idea.

Typically, I assign the concept of doing-before-knowing to my attempts at living a more present and mindful existence. One of the tenets of Buddhism, upon which a mindfulness practice heavily relies, is that you are ready to be mindful right now, you have what you need right here, there is no amount of training or preparation that can give you the inner resources that you don’t already possess.

In writing, doing-before-knowing can manifest itself in myriad ways depending on the writer. Maybe it means writing a novel before we’re ready. Maybe it means writing a character with a different ethnicity. Maybe it means finally writing that epic, book-length poem (God help you.)

Specific to writing—because it overlaps so with academic work—you can research yourself into paralysis. And, sorry to break it to you, but you will never know everything about your subject. There will be holes. Those holes—however small—will betray themselves in your work. Yeah, try to fill them, try to know what you can, but here’s the thing:

Writers are illusionists, enchanters, conjurers – not founts of encyclopedic knowledge.

Think over the most influential authors from your own life, and although you may well have learned a thing or two from them, that’s just a happy accident, because what we carry with us still is the residue of the spell that they cast upon us, the way they transported us, transfixed us. Tricked us into seeing our lives in a tweaked, technicolored way.

Do we need to climb a mountain in order to describe climbing a mountain? Experience helps, sure, but a litany of mountain-climbing details without artistic intervention is going to make readers want to gouge out their eyes with a crampon. The gimmick is to make the reader believe she is climbing a mountain, and there is no number of mountains you can climb that will prepare you to do that.

Practice instead the subterfuge. But be wary, for here, too, lies another trap. We all carry with us the ever-running ‘Rocky Montage’ where we locate our inner tiger-eye and overcome our fear and train and train and train AND THEN we go beat Clubber Lang in the ring. Sure, we all need to hone the fundamentals and, yes, there is validity to practice—because we will get better the more we do something—but remember: Clubber Lang putting the hurt on us is an essential part of the journey. We evolve by the surviving, the overcoming, not by what we knew before the match started.  

Attend to the skills of writing, pay attention to the details, learn what you can upfront, but if we want to write works that will transport readers—and these are the only works worth writing—hone how you incant, how you mystify, hone how you conjure that spell.

The ability to do so is already within you.