thoughts on the business of creativity

Torrie June 2018 605 (2).JPGDo you ever become obsessed with productivity? The need to keep vaulting forward? Believe me when I tell you that, as I write this an hour after waking, and already I’ve felt myself pitching into the anxiety of industry.

I tried to explain this to my partner: I feel like I’m fragmenting. My brain is this hive, a colony of operations, except I’m the only bee inside and can’t visit every chamber. There’s the business of leaving: the leases and the jobs and the moving boxes and what you do with all the stuff you own when half of it you love and half of it you hate, but it all seems to necessary. But then there’s all the stuff that has nothing to do with moving, and everything to do with just living.

How do you make enough money to earn the freedom of unencumbered hours to create? If, by some miracle of economy and privilege, you have that freedom, how do you cut away the noise of the world to let ideas populate your wilderness? If by all the miracles of economy and privilege and focus, you actually create something, how do you get anyone else’s attention?

I sound like I’m complaining that “no one” reads me writing, but really, I’m not. More people read my writing than I can even imagine. After I wrote about finishing my novel, several people emailed asking for the PDF. What a gift that was. Doubly, triply so when those miraculous readers wrote me to say they saw the kind of beauty in my story I’ve worked so hard to create.

No, it’s all the business of creativity. The social media presence and the digital analytics and the “cultivating community” (versus the actual, valuable process of finding people who are as excited about the same things as you). We’re inundated constantly with all these stories about people who “hustled” their way into their careers, who built brands and followings and presences and parlayed them into other opportunities. I want to write, and I’m not saying I should be be able to do this without any work (because I’m shouldn’t), but I’m saying what does my Instagram following having to do with the stories I write about broken people? And if one means something to the other, how do I marry those bright squares with the emotional excavations of my fiction.

I’m creatively restless in the blank spaces that finishing my novel opened, and I’m uncomfortable and confused by the landscape of digital creativity. (What even does that mean? Again, I write. Does that make me a digital creative? Does simply being creative in 2018 mean you are, automatically, a digital creative?)

Yesterday, I sat in a garden for two hours, and finally left, because I couldn’t still my mind. These two trajectories, moving away and building my writing, are linked, because I’m looking at this move as an opportunity to refocus my time and energy. My brain is a to do list a mile long, and it’s an internet browser left open on too many tabs. 

I’ve questions I want answered and stories I want told. How do I drill down past all the extra stuff to think as deeply as you need to write? And then how do I pop back above the surface, and make space for myself in the already crowded room?

what stories do I want to tell?

death_to_stock_photography_bonus_floral_6
Death to the Stock Photo

“The commitments of home, blood and marriage ran through the album as I tried to understand where these things might fit into my own life. My records are always the sound of someone trying to understand where to place his mind and heart. I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on. It’s one foot in the light, one foot in the darkness, in pursuit of the next day.” Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run

The first novel I read in the new year was Julia Glass’ Three Junes, a National Book Award winner from 2002, and a big, abundant, full novel. It was a book that gathered together life and death, and held each of them without letting one or the other grow too heavy. I read it in sadness, and it did what good literature is supposed to do – it helped heal me.

As 2016 wound to a close, I was at existential odds with my writing. In the summer, I abandoned the third draft of my first novel again, and in the fall, I began handwriting a dark, sad story that I knew would end with a little boy’s body found at the bottom of a frozen pond. (Should I mention here that I spent the fall depressed and deeply sad?) As the new year began, bringing with it what it always does, a few weeks of ringing clarity, I was, yet again, ravenous to return to my first novel.

I finished the last pages of Three Junes, and it was like someone took the book right out of my hands and hurled it at me. My very first thought was “this is the kind of book I want to write.”

It rang like a bell, this answer to this question that I didn’t know I needed to answer.

What kind of book do I want to write?

I once listened to an interview with George Saunders (that I cannot for the life of me track down now) where he said that an early review of one of first books said that he writes love much better than he writes anger. Ever since hearing that, I’ve been asking myself that same question. What do I write better? Love? Pain? Anger? Hope? Hopelessness?

My interests trend towards the dark and macabre (blame it on my father letting me watch Helter Skelter while I did my math homework in second grade), but do I want also want to write the deeply dark? Last weekend, I read for review a brilliant, dark, experimental novel about violent women, generational pain, and serial killers. The language was fierce, the story a cave. I loved this novel, and nearly wept at its excellence, but when I asked myself, is this the kind of book I want to write, I was surprised to answer myself: no.

As much as I love diving deep into someone else’s dark world, that’s not the world I want to belong solely to. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to write a novel, time beyond the actual writing. I can’t write entirely about the darkness, but I cannot spend that much time inside of it. Life has dark and light – I want to include both in my writing.

I loved Three Junes so much, because it dealt in abundance – the baggy, complex, dichotomous wideness of life. When I think of other books I’ve loved, The Golden Age, Merit Badges, even Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, they each tap into the scope and depth of what it means to be human without shying away from the desperate pain and wild exuberance of life. These novels occupy a space of brave fullness, gathering up the range of human experiences between their pages. That’s the kind of novel I want to try to write, that’s the kind of story that burns inside of me.

I think every writer of literary fiction has to, at some point or another, grapple with their personal ideas about “serious” versus “not serious” writing. In many ways, that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. What is the story I think I should be telling to be taken seriously or looked at with regard, and what is the story that I want to tell. I’ve been struggling with my own definitions of seriousness and worthiness. Is my writing only worthy if it’s tortured, or can it also have hope?

Creativity needs limits, and after all the wrestling I’ve been doing, it’s really exciting to give myself this limit, to say “this is what to do, this is the story I have to tell.” I want to tell stories that contemplate complexities, that zero-in on lives lived tethered to other people, that give voice to the ordinary, and provide context for our most inexplicable and un-navigable experiences. Not Pollyanna stories that end with bows, but brave, big-hearted, and deeply felt stories. Stories are fierce enough to embrace the two dichotomous truths, that life is fucking hard and fucking beautiful, often both at once.

As I continue to grow as a writer, I hope that my interests and my limits will shift (how boring and uninspired if they don’t), but for right now, the clarity is incredible. As is the freedom.