There’s one thing that can’t be taught in writing classes. It’s really too bad, too, because in my mind, that “one thing” is the single most important ingredient when cooking up the Good Stuff. It’s the fast-dissolving capsule of Vitamin C – where the “C” stands for Creativity.
(Ironically, if it were possible to teach it, I’m not so sure it would be ethical to do so.)
It’s this: You’ve got to embrace your insanity.
To do this writing thing the right way, you’d better be willing to let your sanity off the chain: let it run loose and wild in the cul-de-sacs of your heart and mind.
Seriously, you might as well just go ahead and order a flagpole off of Amazon so you can fly your crazy flag from up high, because creativity is a sliding scale of mental health. On one end of the spectrum: fully functioning sane people. They use their words when speaking, often in complete sentences, and can even say what they mean. There is an order to life for these folks— they understand cause and effect, forward momentum, and logic.
On the other extreme: the recluses who occasionally speak in dolphin sounds while stuffing rocks in their pockets as they head down to the water’s edge.
And here’s the thing, you can’t work from both ends simultaneously.
Seeing as this is an essay about creative writing, let’s get more creative with this metaphor, shall we? Let’s take our sliding scale metaphor down off the wall, and taffy pull it into a more interesting mental picture. Let’s stretch the sliding scale into, say, a lake.
Even better: A lake at a summer camp.
Even better than that: A haunted summer camp lake. With canoes. And heavy, heavy fog.
All around the edges of the lake, things are manageable. There are lots of bright orange safety vests strewn around the edge just in case someone swims out too far.
There is no shame if an artist chooses to spend all her time on the shore. It’s nice and safe there. More things to do for the kids. There’s probably a public bathroom close by. You can buy ice. A lot of super fun books with crappy covers have been written while sitting on the shore under rented beach umbrellas.
But to get crunchy with the whispering ethers, you’ve got to get in the canoe. (It usually only has one paddle.) You have to float out into the fog. Monsters live in deep water. Only there can you fish for “the big one.”
Here’s the problem: for most people, employment happens back at the shore.
So how do you bridge the gap?
No, really. I’m asking. How do you bridge the gap between that playground in the middle of the lake and the solid reality of a 1099?
I spent two and a half years in an MFA program whittling my canoe by hand, and have since been letting the current take me where it will. (I think I dropped the paddle somewhere. I lose things a lot.) And now, it seems I’ve lost sight of the shore completely. I’m having trouble making out those hard lines at the edges of responsibility. And I kind of don’t care.
I don’t mean I don’t care about my job. I do! I really almost completely do care sometimes.
I mean that my mind has found itself a new home where my imagination spends most afternoons jumping on a cerebral trampoline with its figments. You know that mental equilibrium that keeps us equidistant between La La Land and a time sheet? Well, at some unpinpointable moment in the last three years, mine cracked right in half. My safety cord snapped.
And I’m in no hurry to find my way back.
Here’s a profound statement: I don’t like doing things I don’t want to do. Twisting my mind is easy. My arm, not so much. I waited a long time for my VISA to enter The Land of Make Believe. And now I want full citizenship.
I guess some artists manage to live in both places, on shore and off. But I would bet my 2006 Toyota Corolla with 106,000 miles that the work they produce would bore me. ‘Cause the writers whose vibe I dig? Whose wordplay rattles my cage? I can just about taste the crazy sauce on their pages. And I love it. Give me an extra side of that, please.
Stories crafted from the shore almost never blaze those firey neurological pathways in the part of my brain. You know, the part that squeezes serotonin and adrenaline and other good stuff all through my bloodstream and makes me pound my fists on the table, screaming for more.
Nope. You’ve got to put some eyes of newt into your own skull. You’ve got to drop the crackly whispers into the Crock Pot of Cuckoo, people. Then boil that mess over the sides. Don’t bother cleaning it up. It doesn’t come off.
You’ve got to embrace your insanity.
I am in some fear, and I don’t mind saying so. I hope I can find the balance. HR probably wouldn’t accept my little Friday the 13th Camp setting analogy as an excuse for poor job performance. But it’s the same, whether in real life or mythology: once a great beast is let out of its cage, it is almost impossible to get it back behind bars.