I posted a few words last week, and the responses I received got me to thinking about creativity in general. I talked about the type of person who can create something out of nothing, whether that was a musician, a writer, a painter, an architect or a chef. They all have something in common, it seems, if nothing more than the desire – perhaps even the need – to put something there that was not there before.
Perhaps the society within which we live is populated by two types of people, those who create, and those who consume. Of course, anyone who works also creates something, but there is a fundamental difference between driving a truck or filing insurance claims and sitting down to write a novel or compose a piece of music. I am not suggesting that driving a truck or filing insurance claims are any less noble a profession than anything else. In fact, Dorothy Parker said that the writer’s way was tough and lonely, and who would choose it while there are vacancies in more gracious professions, such as, say ferryboat cleaning? Countering that, one young author, when told that she could be the next Dorothy Parker, replied ‘What? Keep slashing my wrists and drinking shoe polish?’
So, truthfully, there are ups and downs to any and all professions, and society could not function if all professions were not pursued, but here we are talking about artists in general, and I know from experience that the less well-trod path of the ‘creative type’ can be a difficult one. I want to talk about the decision we made at some point to do this thing. I have a great many friends who are writers, artists and musicians. They are good people, but kind of crazy in a special and unique way. I know a piano player in Michigan, another in Paris, some horn players in Amsterdam, a half dozen truly great guitar players, and I am privileged to be in a band with a drummer and a bass player, both of whom are at the top of their craft. However, they all have one other thing in common aside from the need to create, and that seems to be the decision that it is a struggle. They talk about the hard work involved, the lack of breaks, the sense of disappointment and disillusion that often accompanies their seemingly futile efforts to make a record or secure a support role on a major tour. I see this with writers, not only those who have yet to be published, but those who have been published and are now experiencing blocks in their own creativity that have derailed their own projects.
Always interested in what the true leaders in any field have to say, I have – over time – come across a few quotes that have really rung true for me. The poet, Robert Frost, said the following: ‘Poets need not go to Niagara to write about the force of falling water.’ I have selected this because it says two things for me. Firstly, the obvious point that imagination is a tool employed by writers, artists and musicians (whom we shall now collectively refer to as ‘creators’ for ease of expression), and this tool is used to evoke an emotional response in the viewer, reader or listener. That, for me, is always the primary purpose of any artistic or aesthetic creation: to evoke an emotional response. However, that aside, I feel that the above quote from Frost says something else. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I have heard people say, ‘Well, if I just had a little more time, I would finish my novel…’ That goes for songwriters, painters, photographers and the rest of them.
Arnold Bennett said the following: ‘Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no aristocracy of wealth, and no aristocracy of intellect. Genius is never rewarded by even an extra hour a day. And there is no punishment. Waste your indefinitely precious commodity as much as you will, and the supply will never be held from you. No mysterious power will say: ‘This man is a fool, if not a knave. He does not deserve time; he shall be cut off at the meter’. Moreover, you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste tomorrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.’
So, essentially, we all have the same amount of time, and it is simply a matter of how we use it. Of course there are jobs and bills and kids and dad being a taxi service, and a hundred thousand other reasons why you can’t finish the novel or devote more hours to practising the guitar, but pretty much everyone has those same obligations and responsibilities, and some of them go ahead and finish the novel or find that hour every day to learn their scales, and that is the difference.
I know, for example, that founding a band, rehearsing and then getting it into the recording studio or onto the road is a full-time activity. Regardless, that full-time activity has to compete with half a dozen other full-time activities. In the early days of writing, and right up to the point when I published my seventh novel, I was still working a full-time job. I say full-time job because it consumed a good sixty or seventy hours a week with travel and other factors taken into consideration. There’s an old adage: If you want something done, give it to someone who’s got no time to do it. Basically, the busier and more productive you are, the more ‘in the zone’ you are about doing things. Essentially, the more you do, the more you become capable of doing. It’s as if your tolerance level changes, and as your tolerance level changes so does your level of industry.
There are a hundred and sixty eight hours in a week. If you work for forty-five or fifty hours, then you sleep for another fifty, you’ve still got seventy hours left over. Take out half of them for laundry, shopping, cooking, driving the kids back and forth, mowing the lawn, and the hundred and one other little things that fill up each week, and you still have about thirty-five hours unaccounted for. That’s almost enough for another full-time job. So where does this time go? In my experience, it disappears because of two things: television and lack or organisation. Now, I don’t really watch television. I do record some stuff – the odd film here and there, a couple of music documentaries – but I tend to stay away from the thing. I have found, over many years, that it becomes hypnotic, and I came to the decision that I would only watch something on TV if I felt it would in some way enhance or improve my understanding of something that I wished to better understand, or if it would have some constructive or positive influence on my own creativity. I don’t watch soaps. I sure as hell don’t watch ‘reality tv’. I don’t see the point, honestly. That doesn’t mean to say that they are not inspirational or important for someone else, and I am certainly not levelling a criticism, but I just don’t get the point. Thoreau said, ‘How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live’, and I agree. I would prefer to go out and get involved in life, to get in trouble, to experience some real things happening in real situation rather than sit indoors and watch other peoples’ lives unfold. I prefer participation to spectatorism every time.
The second issue is lack of organisation. This is a killer. We start something, leave it incomplete. We start something else, leave that incomplete. Finally we are surrounded by incomplete projects – everything from tidying out the garage to balancing the cheque book – and we feel overwhelmed. We give up, go sit in front of the TV with a beer and tell ourselves we’ll do it tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes. Howe do you handle this? Well, I write lists, not compulsively, and not very often, but if I ever get into that state I write a list of all the incomplete things on hand, and I look it over and find one thing that I can finish right now. Then I finish it. I don’t do anything else until it’s finished. And then I pick the next thing, and so on until it’s all done. Not only does that put you back in control of your environment and time, but it serves to free up all the attention you had stuck in all these incomplete things. It has a remarkably re-energising effect. It also reminds you that you can finish things, you can get things done, and the same attitude can then be applied to your incomplete novel, the song you never finished writing, the practise schedule that you never stick to.
I keep a running record of every hour’s practice I do on the guitar. Last year I did something close to six hundred hours. That makes me sound a little OCD, for sure, but there is a reason for this approach. I work better to a target, and always have done. I am addicted to getting things finished, regardless of what they are. I also work better in an organised and predictable environment, and therefore I am very tidy, especially in my work area. Over the years I have accumulated a vast wealth of research notes and documents. If you want a map of New York’s subway system from the 1960s, I can give it to you in about eight seconds. When you’re done with it, it goes right back where it came from. I don’t have time to be looking for things. Good organisation lends itself to efficiency, and I am solely interested in efficiency because lack of efficiency is the killer when it comes to getting things done. Also, as soon as a book is finished, I go through my work area and throw away anything that I no longer need. I also clean the place from top to bottom, put away everything that I didn’t put away, and then I can start the new book with a clean slate.
This raises another issue which we’ve touched on before: inspiration.
Picasso, somewhere in his eighties, was asked why he still spent so many hours per day in his studio, and he said something to the effect of, ‘because when inspiration finds me, and finds me she rarely does, I want her to find me hard at work.’
That tallies completely with my attitude to inspiration. At art college, the brief stint I did in the early eighties before bailing out, I had a disagreement with a teacher. He said that great art was ninety-five percent perspiration, five percent inspiration. I said it was the other way around. Now, thirty years later, I completely understand how wrong I was.
I think of the creative mind like a sponge. Ray Bradbury said, ‘We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.’
I think, just by living, we soak up ideas and inspiration from everywhere. When we sit down to write, to play, to draw, to paint, we squeeze that ‘sponge’, and thereby create a vacuum that can soak up further inspiration from life and experience. If we are not creating, then the ideas are finding no outlet, and if they are not being emptied out then you are not creating further space for new ideas to come in.
I write without a synopsis. I have not the faintest clue where a book will end until I get there. Often the very best ideas I have had have come while I have been in the very process of writing the book. Chandler said, ‘The faster I write the better my output. If I’m going slow I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.’
So, what are we saying here? We are saying that the creative individual possesses a particular type of attitude, a particular way of seeing things, a particular way of turning experience into inspiration for his or her art. We are saying that only by working hard in a chosen field do we create, and the more we create the better we get. It has been said, and I have noted this before, that any creative faculty is like a muscle. The more we use it, the stronger it gets.
Henry Fielding said, ‘To the composition of novels and romances, nothing is necessary but paper, pens, and ink, with the manual capacity of using them.’ What does that really mean? It means, as far as I am concerned, that unless you sit down and use your paper, pens and ink there will never be a novel.
Terry Pratchett famously commented, ‘There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.’ It was a joke, of course, but never a truer word spoken in jest perhaps?
If we are looking for a reason not to create, we will easily find one. If we are looking for a reason to procrastinate, we will easily find one. If we are looking for a reason why it can’t be done, such reasons abound. Even Hemingway said, ‘It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.’ So even Hemingway acknowledges the fact that this is always a learning process, that the truly gifted are not always just gifted at birth, that even those who do possess a seemingly endless bounty of talent have to maintain that talent with practice, practice and more practice.
Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian teenage gymnast, winner of three Olympic Gold Medals by the age of fourteen, was asked how she made it look so effortless. She hesitated for just a moment, smiled, and said, “It’s the hard work that makes it easy.”
So good organisation lends itself to productivity; productivity dictates one’s general attitude towards one’s own creativity, as in the more one produces, the better one feels, and the more one believes in one’s own ability to produce, and with that increaed confidence one creates even more.
Lastly, and perhaps more for me than anything else, we have to talk about external influences that seek to divert one from a creative or constructive path. External criticism feeds right into individual insecurity. It has been said that creative people are fifty percent ego, fifty percent insecurity. I have always suffered from a deep-seated sense that I will never create what I am actually capable of creating. That seems to be part of my basic nature. My wife constantly tells me to be more ‘glass half full’ when it comes to my own accomplishments.
Insecurity in self can lead you into the trap of comparing yourself to others. Krishnamurti said that a life of comparison is a life of misery, and I have to tell you, hand on heart, that I believe this completely. I have been guilty of this, and the sense of ‘injustice’ and ‘envy’ one feels when one looks at the success of another who one feels is creating something perhaps less ‘worthy’ or ‘valuable’ than yourself is a nightmare road that you should never even set a foot on, let alone walk down.
Personally, I do not believe that there is some basic and equitable justice in this universe. I do not believe in luck, good or bad. I do not believe that anyone is actually responsible for creating destiny or fate apart from the person themselves. We create our own good fortune, perhaps because of what we are doing now, perhaps because of what we have done in the past, perhaps simply because the mind possesses sufficient innate and inherent power to turn the world around on a single decision. I do not know, and I do not profess to know. One thing I do know is that the only person who winds up unhappy when comparison to another’s success enters the field of play is the person who is doing the comparing.
Over the past few months I have done a number of writers’ workshops and events. I am asked endlessly why ‘Fifty Shades…’ has been so successful. I do not know. I have not read the books, and have no comment to make about them. The next issue raised – almost invariably – is the frustration that aspiring and unpublished writers feel about these books because they do not feel they deserve success. I am told that they are not very well written, that they are – essentially – soft porn packaged as literature. I have no comment. I cannot make a judgement, and I have no interest in making a judgement. I have little enough time to read all the things I want to read, let alone the things I am not so interested in!
However, as the Romans said, ‘When it comes to taste, there is no debate’. People read what people read, and I am just happy that people are reading. Maybe reading one thing that is relatively simple, and yet serves to entertain on any level, will then prompt a desire for further reading. Let us hope that those who are reading just continue reading.
On a more personal level, and back to the issue of comparison and ‘injustice’, all that can be done in such situations is a further resolve and commitment to work as hard as possible, to persist that little bit more, to persevere, to never quit, to always do the very best one can with any project undertaken. There is no other solution.
I have quoted Disraeli many times before (‘Success is entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose’), but I can also quote Richard Bach when he said that ‘A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit’.
It is a job of work, this creativity.
It is more perspiration than inspiration.
It is a matter of making the time, not waiting for the time to be made available to you.
Those who say, ‘I’ll get around to it soon…’ often never do.
It is often a matter of doing it even when you don’t feel like doing it.
It is an attitude, a viewpoint, a lifestyle. It is not a job, but a vocation. And you have to love it, even when you hate it.
So, very simply, turn off the television, get organised, get busy. Always have the viewpoint that the best book you can write is the one you have yet to write, that the best song is the one you haven’t yet penned.
Life, as they say, is not a rehearsal.
Perhaps inspiration comes most often when one is too busy creating to think about whether or not one is going to be inspired.