*Warning: This post is messy and doesn’t sugar-coat the ugly truth and is a personal confessional of sorts*
Writing is hard work. Writing is especially difficult when you are expected to plumb through the dreck, muck & mire in real life dramas to find a spark of creativity. Non-writers who think that writing a story is easy have obviously never tried themselves. Life is no easier for a writer than it is for a non-writer. There is no “escape” from real life dramas. Real life is Messy at the best of times and at the worst of times it takes all your strength to keep swimming to keep yourself from sinking and drowning. Sometimes the mess that is LIFE drains all the energy – both physical and mental – out of you and you are as creative as a dried-up sponge with all the water squeezed out of it. It is so tempting to stop swimming and just let the tide take you. You tell yourself “It is not giving up. It is just giving in to the inevitable.”. You wonder what the point of fighting it all is for. Why bother to keep swimming if the tide is going to overpower you and wash you out to sea eventually?
The thing is LIFE is a journey and not a destination. Nobody said it would be a vacation. Nobody said it would be fair. Nobody said it would be easy. Nobody said there would be enough good to balance out the bad. Creative people are by nature more emotional and more sensitive. We wear our hearts on our sleeves and with every tear and every scar from our lives we flesh out our characters, shade our stories with emotional truths and try to make sense of the MESS. But sometimes real life truths are too painful to plumb for a creative spark and a kernel of inspiration. Sometimes the last thing we want to do is rehash real life in a story. Even fiction has an underlying element of emotional truth. And sometimes it is easier to believe the white lies than face the truths. This is when writing is hard for me. This is when I go into hiding from my own creativity. This is where I have been living for the past two months. Although ‘living’ is an optimistic term because really all I have been doing is ‘surviving’ at the best and treading water just keeping my head clear enough to gasp out a few breaths at the worst.
Usually writing helps keep me sane. Only 3 times in my life have I been in hibernation from writing and now is one of those times. I look at my screen and the flashing cursor mocks me. I take out my notebooks and try to write down words, any words at this point will do. But the words don’t come. It feels like I have a dam inside me just about bursting through the walls of my heart. I know I should let the dam wash through but I am scared the heaviness of the waters will pull me under. So instead I tamp down on the dam’s strength, I build the walls higher and bolster them with false euphemisms, easy white lies I tell myself. Every time I look at the screen or open a blank page of my notebook I know what I want to write but they are not good words, not a creative spark. They are dark thoughts, heavy emotions and poisonous threads that will weave themselves into a cobweb around my words and my creativity.
As I write this post I realise though that I am a writer and words are my way of dealing with crap that I don’t want to deal with. Which is why the cursor mocks me, the blank note-page empty of ink splotches mocks me. Because I am fooling nobody but myself. I don’t want to process the dark emotions. I want to hibernate from everything but especially words. Because one thing I cannot do is write a white lie to make things easier. That is just not how I am built. My words are the truest part of me. When I want to take a vacation from my real life I escape into the world of stories. I realise I have been blocking myself. I am my writer’s block. Hibernation and not writing is easier but it kills me a little more inside. I am the dam wall holding back the words, keeping the emotions at bay. Life should not be about surviving. It should be about LIVING and that means the dark shades are as important to colour in as the light shades are. Perhaps the darkest shades are the ones we need the most because if there is no dark there need be no light. I am ready to un-dam those waters and let the dark words out so the spark of a match will lead me back to my creativity and back to my place of sanity: writing. I have to remind myself that even the rubbish words are still words. As scary as it is, it is time to un-dam the words. Otherwise I may as well just give up now. I am too stubborn to give up yet.
I am reminded by an old saying that some parents tell their toddlers: USE YOUR WORDS.
How do you find the creative in the dreck of real life drama?
Have you ever felt like you were your own wall, your own block?
How did you work through it?
I leave you with the advice of one of my heroes: F. Scott Fitzgerald. A man who knew the darkness and wrote a way out of it.
November 9, 1938
I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.
This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories “In Our Time” went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In “This Side of Paradise” I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.
The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming—the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.
That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is “nice” is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the “works.” You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.
In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,
F. Scott Fitzgerald
P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent—which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.
*Aside: For my writer friends out there, this is a great letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald about the price one needs to pay to be a successful writer.
A little background, in late 1938, eager to gain some feedback on her work, aspiring young author and Radcliffe sophomore Frances Turnbull sent a copy of her latest story to celebrated novelist and friend of the family, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Before long the feedback arrived, in the form of the somewhat harsh but admirably honest reply seen above.*
[Source: F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters; Image: F. Scott Fitzgerald, via. Globe Bookstore and Cafe (facebook)]
The greatest creative minds don’t waste time telling white lies and don’t waste words sugar-coating the ugly truths. They dive into the deepest tides of that sinking mud and they get messy with the truth. They embrace the dark to give the light a canvas to shine from.