Luncheon address to the IABC, Arkansas chapter, March 25, 2011.
Adapted from a broader talk on Myth-busting and Detoxing for Creatives. Contact The Author for information on availability for speaking.
I thought I’d establish my authority as a communications professional with a day-in-the-life snapshot from my forthcoming memoir, Planting Dandelions: Field Notes from a Semi-Domesticated Life. First, picture, if you will, the proto-typical author’s study: the polished oaken desk, the tufted leather chair, the towering, slip-covered edition of the OED, the hushed atmosphere of a sanctuary that is consecrated solely to one’s craft and art.
Now, picture this:
I have a desk, but my “office” is generally the end of the dining room table.
According to the amount of e-mail spam I get, advertising work-at-home opportunities for moms, I’m living the dream. It’s not unlike the dream where you sit down for an exam and realize you have no pants on. Only the exam is a magazine deadline, and there’s a chance that I really don’t have any pants on. Every day is casual day at Work-at-Home-Mom Inc. Also, it’s always bring-your-kid-to-work day, because my office hours don’t neatly correspond with the ringing of the school bell. The kids come home around the same time of day that New York editors usually approach the bottom of their to-do lists, where my name and number sometimes happens to be.
The first time one of my essays was picked up for publication, I had to leave a voice mail for one of those editors, a person I aspired to work with again and upon whom I wished to impress a certain air of decorum and professionalism. That whole neurotic, hapless, flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, Wendy-Among-the-Lost-Boys thing? Ha-ha! Merely my literary persona, my dear. I can turn it on or off at will.
I left my message, and closed with this: “I have to go now. The baby is naked, and he has a hammer.”
It could have been worse. On any other day that week, I could have instead closed with:
“I have to go. The baby is locked in the dog crate.”
“I have to go. They are making a contest of jumping over the pee on the floor.”
“I have to go. They just lassoed the ceiling fan.”
I decided I needed the proverbial “room of one’s own,” so I claimed a utility room at the back of the house, which had previously been designated as an arts and crafts space for the kids, a place where mess-making was allowed. Of course they weren’t the slightest bit interested in it until I moved a desk, a chair, and my laptop in, and declared it off-limits.
I might as well have baited it with candy. A few weeks later, in the middle of a project, I walked into my sanctuary to find it completely trashed. A cupboard full of art and school supplies had been pillaged. Paint was splattered on the floor, my file folders and copy paper strewn across it, a fine dusting of craft glitter sprinkled over everything. I went looking for the perpetrators, half-tempted to rub their noses in the spilled glitter, wondering if I ought not to have revised my position on spanking along with everything else.
I apprehended the vandals in the driveway, making mud pies on an industrial scale from a batter of dirt, water, poster paints, and school glue. They stared at me like raccoons caught in headlights on the rim of a Dumpster.
“For the love of God,” I implored them, “go watch television.”
That is my reality. The sanctuary is sheer fantasy. At least in my world it is. Who, I ask, loudly and rhetorically, several times a week, could possibly write under these conditions? Well, apparently me. Those are the very same conditions under which I’ve written feature-length magazine articles, personal essays, innumerable blog posts, and a memoir. I also maintain satellite offices at various coffee and wine establishments around town, where I sometimes go when the kids are at school and the house is too quiet.
That’s right, I said “too quiet.” Because a hushed atmosphere doesn’t really work for me. It puts my brain to sleep. I need a certain amount of ambient noise and energy in order to focus. To quote the unapologetically off-key Neil Young, “That’s my style, man.”
But for years I bought into the fantasy--or as it may be, some other writer’s reality. Real writers, I thought, require (and crave) solitude. Real writers have serious offices. Real writers put in X number of hours every day, and produce X number of words, no matter what. It said so in their biographies and how-to books. It didn’t occur to me that the vast majority of my literary heroes had wives who saw to it that the study door was kept shut. Since I couldn’t seem to adapt to their model, I must not be cut out for the job.
I finally accepted that I am a real writer about the same time the IRS did. Getting paid confers a certain legitimacy. But the truth is, I’m a real writer because I write, not because I get published, and not because I use a particular set of tools or techniques. And while this may seem obvious to you, it took me nearly forty years to separate the cultural myth from my creative reality.
Even if you don’t labor under that particular illusion, I’m willing to bet there are other cultural myths about creative work that come between you and your own potential. Our society tends to regard creativity as a kind of sixth sense – a mysterious gift that is magical, rare, and a little suspect. “Oh, I’m not creative at all,” people often spontaneously confess to me upon learning what it is I do. I can almost hear the afterthought: not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The irony is that it’s always an obviously false claim, belied by the speaker’s passion for funky accessories, or gardening, or cooking, or tinkering with cars. Putting stuff together to make new stuff is human. It’s what we do.
But I’m preaching to the choir. Most of you are communications professionals. You’ve chosen a creative field. You’ve outed yourselves as flakey types. As a one-term Public Relations major, I can confidently assume that many of you were drawn to the idea of writing as an occupation. And since you stuck with PR or marketing, and I didn’t, I’m guessing many of you were equally drawn to the idea of not being destitute. Because what more persistent superstition is there about creativity than the specter of the starving artist? The myth that creative risk-taking necessarily comes at great cost and severe hardship is instilled in us from childhood.
An example: my fourth grader came home one day asking me --in a rather worried tone-- if it was true that authors don’t make any money, since that’s what he’d been told by a visiting writer at his school. Though I’ve had days myself where I would vigorously dissuade anyone in their rational mind from writing books, I’m sure that’s not what the visitor intended his audience to come away with. But that’s what my kid heard. I wonder how many students scratched “author” off the “What I Want to Be When I Grow Up” list that day.
Now I’m not here to talk anyone out of their day job. But I encourage everyone to examine the things we’ve all been conditioned to believe about creativity, and consider how they may be holding you back in your present career, or from some other secret ambition.
The starving, mad, or otherwise afflicted artist is one of our favorite bogeymen. Our culture has a great and enduring romance with this myth. Like a Grimm’s fairy tale, or a warning on a medieval map, it cautions us against wandering off the beaten path. To venture off the edge of what is already charted and known is a heroic, but reckless gamble, won only at great personal cost. Here be dragons.
The afflicted artist makes for riveting biography, which is part of the reason we’ve come to associate creativity with tragedy, mental illness, addiction, bankruptcy and a host of other hardships. But for every Van Gogh, Hemingway, and Beethoven, there is another genius who lived as peacefully and angst-free as any could reasonably hope to in his or her time—a Matisse, an Atwood, a Bach. Certainly, great works can be wrought from suffering. As can very bad works, as anyone who wrote poetry in high school knows. Suffering is intrinsic to creativity only to the same extent that it is intrinsic to being alive. Afflicted artists have been productive in spite of their difficulties, not because of them.
But I’m not an artist, you say, so what has this got to do with me? Well, any kind of creative work requires breaking out of the tribe’s gravitational pull – whether the tribe is your family, your co-workers, or your professional association. No matter how much we profess to admire independent thinking and originality, when we humans gather together in groups, the biological imperative to keep your head down kicks in. Our developmental years, from childhood through young adulthood, are principally about learning to fit in. Small wonder, then, that it’s incredibly difficult to break out and present the tribe with something altogether new. If there’s a seed of statistical truth to the myth of the afflicted artist, it’s that people prone to self-destructive behaviors, tragedy and other trials, are accustomed to being outside the tribal comfort zone. They have less of the illusion of security to lose.
Being an outsider, even temporarily, is extremely stressful for most of us. Myself, I approach every group with the resolve to everyone is going to love me or we all die. The advantage to this neurosis is that it drives me to work very, very hard to tell good stories. The disadvantage, and the Catch 22, is that it makes it very difficult to risk failing in the attempt. One of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever received came from my former boss and mentor, the Reverend Canon Susan Sims-Smith, who told me, “Not everyone is going to kiss you on both cheeks and call you blessed. Get over it.” If I could cross-stitch those words to hang above my desk, I would.
We are an anxious species, living in anxious times. We crave certainties. We like infographics. We need Global Satellite Positioning. We have to know where we are, where we’re going, and what time we’ll get there. We want measureable inputs and outputs. We need to know the rules.
But there are no rules in creativity, no grids of longitude and latitude, no X+Y=Z. We can’t map a place we’ve never been, and though we can learn from the experiences of other innovators, our own creative ventures will be always be Terra Nova --uniquely ours to discover. Though that doesn’t stop people from trying to tell you the lay of the land. At various points in my career I’ve read or been told, according to conventional wisdom:
“No one is publishing personal essays anymore.”
“Memoirs about mothering are over.”
“Blogs are over.”
And my favorite,
“Putting your writing on your blog and hoping to get published is like putting your resume on your doorstep and hoping to get hired.”
Every one of those unequivocal statements was put forth by a respected expert in my field. People with far more experience in publishing than me. And in my case, every single one proved 100 per cent false. Conclusion: the phrase conventional wisdom is an oxymoron.
And so this is what all of that has to do with you or anyone in any profession: the more you can recognize and tolerate the rejection reflex of your tribe, the better you can evaluate and handle objections. The more skepticism you can bring to conventional wisdom, the more creative risks you can permit yourself –and through your example, others--to take. The knowledge that a new idea will generate as much anxiety as excitement forearms you against the inevitable sabotage—both self-inflicted and external—that new ideas attract. The idea may be brilliant or it may suck, but being able to set aside the reflexive, fear-based response is critical if you want to advance it far enough to find out.