Making things, writing things, sculpting or painting things, cooking things, knitting things, instrument playing, singing and songwriting, whatever your creative thing is, can often be terrifying and soul-crushing. Why? One, because it’s a tiny bit lonely, to be sure, sitting by yourself. Two, because no one is waiting for you to make things. Unless they’re hungry and you’re cooking. But for the most part, no one set a deadline and asked you to write a haiku or a sonnet or a short story so that they can get through the day. But mostly being creative is challenging because of the incessant, petulant, annoying, destructive voices inside your head, the ones that never shut up, the ones that question every little decision and try to invalidate your being an artist. The voice that calls you a fraud. The voice that says, “Who do you think you are?”
Fear not! I am here to help. How have I faced that army of negativity? With people I call wisdom carriers, or other writers and creative people who have collected their experiences together to help the rest of us. Here are some of the most inspiring, practical, whimsical, funny, and magical people I’ve ever encountered. I can tell you, without even asking them for permission, that they would love to be a part of your path, for they all benefited from other wisdom carriers, too. We all need support, advice, humor and maps to navigate the wild, weird, and precarious existence of making stuff. In this way we all grow and evolve, joining up as wisdom carriers as we accumulate our own wise morsels of knowledge.
One of the most important lessons you need to hear today comes from Michael Singer’s book The Untethered Soul: those voices inside your head, the ones that perpetually question your choices and your worth? Those voices are not the real you. The real you hears the voices, watches the voices. Come to know the one who watches the voice, Singer writes, and you will come to know one of the great mysteries of creation. He goes on to say that in order to attain true inner freedom, you must be able to objectively watch your problems instead of being lost in them. No solution can possibly exist while you’re lost in the energy of a problem, and this is valuable advice for writers. I’d rather be lost in the energy of imagination and creation, composing lines, working with words, turning over dialogue, painting the land and waters. But I can’t do all that when problems are brewing. This line from Singer’s book hit me with particular force: “When you get clear enough, you will realize that the real problem is that there is something inside of you that can have a problem with almost anything. The first step is to deal with that part of you.”
Cheryl, Steve and George
I listen to the Dear Sugars podcast when I walk my dog, who is a stubborn old retriever-shepherd mix that takes forever to go to the bathroom, yanks the leash every three steps to urinate on a neighbor’s lawn or car, and refuses to move when he disagrees with the length or direction of my chosen path. He has the disgusting habit of eating soiled Kleenex and cardboard, chicken bones and moldy half-eaten sandwiches he finds in bushes. In short, walking him is a majorly irritating endeavor. But what makes these walks enjoyable for me is listening to the delightful, deep, insightful, meaningful and moving advice show hosted by writers Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond. They often feature other writers to help answer letters from listeners. Listen to this episode—it’s for anyone just starting off as a writer, or for writers thinking about how to balance their jobs and their creative lives. It made me want to immediately call George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, and ask if he needed a niece or daughter. He sounds like the kindest teacher. Bottom line: you don’t have to “clear the decks,” or quit your job to be a writer. The clutter of your life is one of the best sources of ideas for your writing. Indeed, that clutter is the basis for your art.
Liz, Neil, and Gary
Author Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things is one of my all-time favorite novels. She is also a talented creativity coach. Her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear is a must-have for people who want to make things. The podcast she did as part of the book is even more spectacular. Listen to these episodes:
- “Living the Dream and Facing the Nightmare” features a Dutch ex-attorney named Britta who wrote a successful first novel but has hit a wall with her second. Liz enlightens us all by talking about the first book being born of love over many decades, whereas the second book is written quicker without the luxury of no one expecting it. The best tool for writing is introduced too, the egg timer or hourglass, which liberates us from the idea that we must sit at a desk all day waiting for inspiration. Remove the pressure of the second book being better than the first by putting on the egg timer for 30 minutes and writing. Then stop. Find out if you’re a professional working at it, or someone who only wants to create when the inspiration comes. Writer Neil Gaiman gives a second opinion on Britta’s quandary, telling a powerful story of his hero, science fiction author Gene Wolfe, who said you never learn how to write a novel, you merely figure out how to write the novel you are on. And some books must be written, but need not be published.
- “Call Your Real Life By Its True Name.” Colleen, an Irish Catholic advertising executive from Philadelphia who grew up in her family’s bar, longs to tell her stories at open mics. But she worries that doing so is frivolous and isn’t her “real life.” Gary Shteyngart, who writes tragicomic stories from his Russian upbringing, sympathizes and offers thoughts about what we are meant to do. Liz introduces Colleen to the ancient role of the seanchaí, Ireland’s guardians of the tale, essential members of Celtic society. Storytelling isn’t a new thing, though The Moth and Story Corps are recent cultural touchstones that make stories feel new again. Liz points out that seanchaís and storytelling are sacred traditions going back before written language. In ancient Ireland no laws could exist without the seanchaí’s memory. No history was remembered without the seanchaí’s remembering it. In our time, storytellers stand in the light, observing and witnessing history, helping us all to know who we are.
Navigating a creative life is hard, but with companions to walk alongside us, it’s as fulfilling as sunlight through sycamores. Photo by the author.
Joanna and Jane
Being in charge of your writing life and your business is empowering and fulfilling. Joanna Penn and Jane Friedman are two early adopters of the paradigm shift from all the power being in the hands of traditional publishers to it being shared by the makers, the entrepreneurs, those of us with serious literary side hustles. Both of these women are kind, compassionate, smart and savvy. They have figured out a lot about writing and marketing books and they make that knowledge easily available. Jane’s self-publishing article and checklist and Joanna’s podcast reflecting on publishing trends and forecasts are good places to start.