How do you resist the monster that would have you forget your purpose in creating?
Against forgetting, give water to the plant
and notice the light in a stranger’s eye
––and the shadows.
Notice the work still waiting, against
what would have you close your eyes,
surrendering time, white flag waving
for a moment before it falls like a sheet
over the sleeping body, like a sheet
over the dead.
I’d lose my head, The old women would say,
If it wasn’t attached, as if to remind us to
hold the tether to what was less securely
attached; as if to say, you’ll lose your life
if it isn’t attached, by the substance
of a series of tiny actions like clay around
the whisper-thin thread of your otherwise
Against forgetting, say to the child unsure
how to begin, Here, and hold out a hand
and keep mealtimes. Against forgetting,
extend an invitation to the table,
to those cast out, disposed of,
dispossessed. This includes the children
before you and the ones made invisible
and the ones you once were.
To say, I see you, Here
we are and remember.
To notice the little bird in the low branch,
to say its name and listen for its response
to what you have not said. To walk in
the desert, in the dark, with water and
“The bottom line is this: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. In some way, your aspirations and concern for a single man in fact do begin to change the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks or people look at reality, then you can change it.”
-James Baldwin, from a 1979 interview published in The New York Times
This post is a follow-up to yesterday’s post, on the monster that wants us to forget.
One of the challenges with a new project is that it’s not entirely clear what it wants to be, and the already-existing projects and responsibilities, with built-in expectations and demands, are already taxing.
I’ve got a new monster lurking around me this week. He’s given me trouble before. I haven’t named him yet. Every time it occurs to me to notice, he goes, “Forget it!”
That’s his thing, forgetting. Not the kind that makes you wonder where you left your keys, but the kind that makes it easy to forget where you were in a new, not-yet-realized project, and what the next step is supposed to be, and why it matters. I think I know why he’s showing up now. One reason is because I am now moving to focus my evening writing time on developing a new manuscript, the outlines of which are not yet fully realized. And the second is because the return to school (full, unmodified schedule of the like that we haven’t seen since early March 2020) means that the pace of expectations and outside-world responsibilities in a given day is about to increase dramatically. My work as a teacher is work that I care about deeply, and it is also true that achieving a balance between these and other responsibilities and a writing life is a constant tension. Already there are team events, extracurriculars, a great deal more meetings and noises and last-minute events and lesson planning and homework help and lots of new things to learn, make, and do–– all of which matter.
And yet, this other thing I am trying to make, which is somehow tied to the very essence of my life, matters also. But the thing about creative work like this that you are putting your energy into something that does not yet exist. It’s an act of radical hope. And this kind of hope is often under attack.
Some of the challenges with a new project can be that no one’s asking or expecting anything, that it’s not entirely clear what it wants to be, and the already-existing projects and responsibilities, with built-in expectations and demands, are already taxing. As I’ve been noticing this week and feeling a creeping low-grade anxiety about my slippery grasp on this thing I am trying to make. I use the mornings for early pages and usually these posts, and then comes the day, and all the activity that comes with it, and then, by the time afternoon writing hour strikes, I am often sitting at my desk trying to find my way back to something that seemed very urgent and clear when I was in a space of more focused attention.
That’s all I can say about this creature so far. I don’t have a face for him, or a name beyond Forget It. What I am developing now is a plan to deal with him. I am called back to one of my biggest takeaways from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: how it can be helpful to treat the artist-self as a child, in a spirit of play. Sure, I think, but when I’m tired and under stress I tend to also be too tired for play. Thinking of this I am prompted to consider how, as a teacher, I have plenty of experience working with young, usually reluctant and generally insecure writers, who also tend to be tired and under a great deal of stress. I know that reasonable demands paired with consistent structures and gentle encouragement can be most helpful in these situations. As I remember this now, I realize that while I may not have a full grasp on this monster’s anatomy, mannerisms, and preferences, I can grasp how easily he might win if I do not employ thoughtful proactive planning into my afternoon sessions. With this in mind, I begin to develop a plan that employs the best of what I have learned from working with students, who I always expect, even if I saw them one day or a few hours beforehand, will tend to arrive with a certain glazed-over sense of overwhelm and a sense of confusion or disorientation as to what, exactly, we are doing here. Well, I think. When you put it in those terms, we actually do know what to do, when it comes to this “Forget-It” force:
1. Post an agenda. Anticipate that at the end of the average “crazy” day I am going to need a written reminder as to what I am doing, where I left off, and what needs to happen in the day’s session. I would never think of having students begin the day’s work without reminding them back to it, and setting a clear purpose, time and length parameters, and some scaffolding tools and/or examples. I can write this the night before, as with lesson plans, and leave on my desk or desktop to review before I begin.
2. Provide an example when possible. An insecure writer or artist needs models. I can be on the lookout for these. This is something I have not proactively done with myself before, which recently struck me as rather absurd. Only when I was recently challenged to do an imitation exercise, did it occur to me to notice how I had foolishly resisted such practice, which made me realize how often I had been giving myself a challenge that went something like this: spend a lifetime reading what has come before you, and then, in a bold act of self-affirming will (whatever that is), reject it all and reinvent the wheel. Even though I have written about the value of Learning by Imitation, I need to give myself regular reminders that I don’t have to start from scratch. This can seem difficult with some projects, but there is always something that can be used (a prompt, a passage, a model of excellent dialogue, even a mood-setting song or work of art).
3. Set clear parameters. Just as I would with a class, I can be clear with my confused, possibly recalcitrant, and possibly insecure artist-self. As in,“By the end of this period you will have . . .” I will be specific and detailed in these instructions: how long, what’s included, how much time allowed.
4. If time is a parameter, watch it. In the evening hours, it’s generally unreasonable for me to expect uninterrupted time. I’m a single mom and there will be practice pickups, meals to make, math homework to check, and various other welcome responsibilities that are going to need my attention. I am also going to occasionally remember that there is an urgent email or phone call I never responded to. During hectic times like this it can be useful to use a time-tracker app which I start when the work session starts and pause every time I go off-task. It was eye opening when I first started using it last year. I learned that when it came to the evening hours, three hours of scheduled writing time tended to mean more like ninety minutes on task. So, I set a time-on-task goal and tended to be more effective.
This monster is especially pernicious, and I can already tell that I will need more than one post to make a plan for dealing with him. My gut tells me that the antidote to this “forget-it” force goes much deeper than task management. Until then, Remember.
What makes him a monster is a matter not of kind, but of degree. The problem with Dr. Blob is that, left unchecked, he has a poor sense of timing, scale, and of the magnitude of his importance.
This is the second installment in the Monster Mash series, in which I profile some of the monsters that may get in the way of creative work. The purpose is to identify the minions working for the Machine (or Resistance, as Steven Pressfield calls it) that can threaten creativity when allowed to go undetected.In part one, I profiled Nothing, the shaggy, one-note solipsist who goes around declaring It’s Nothing! whenever I am trying to do or listen to Something. I am happy to report that he’s been much quieter since I called him out on his shenanigans.
Today, we move on to another character, Dr. Blob. Dr. Blob is a monster-in-disguise. The disguise is the danger here. Dr. Blob is a skilled analyst with an impressive C.V. He’s an informed expert, well versed in all technical aspects of craft, structure, literary theories, New Criticism, Old Criticism . . . You name it, he has an opinion, and is happy to share it, along with a phonebook-sized research prospectus, in case you are inclined to doubt the validity of any of what he is saying.
In fact, you are not inclined to doubt the validity of anything he is saying. He knows what he’s talking about. He may even be the best in his many fields. The problem is simply that he doesn’t stop talking. All he can do is analyze, and this means that the people who are trying to create are suddenly thinking about what they are doing, and even if it’s something that once felt like the most natural thing in the world (“Cliché!” announces Blob here, and of course he’s correct), they are now choking and unable to work.
He’s great when it comes to analyzing the relative advantages and disadvantages of one structure over another, one setting over another, one point-of-view over another, and so on. His expertise is wide-ranging and can be applied to any aspect of a work, at any time: completed, not yet begun, or in-progress.
He is, in fact, an invaluable member of any creative ecosystem. What makes him a monster is a matter not of kind, but of degree. The problem with Dr. Blob is that, left unchecked, he has a poor sense of timing, scale, and of the magnitude of his importance. He was supposed to be on call as an independent contractor, as a consultant whenever needed. But he either didn’t get or didn’t read the initial memo about his duties, so he tends to think of himself as CEO and creator-in-chief of the whole operation.
He means well, and he wants nothing more than for the work to succeed. But he’s not a creator. He wishes to be, but anything he makes tends to land like a lead balloon (“Another cliché!”), weighed down by too many footnotes, parentheticals, and additional structural tiers. He’ll build so much scaffolding onto a structure-in-progress that no one can see what it’s trying to be. And he makes the little creative sprites (who do actually create great work) get very nervous, because he’s always clicking his pen, tapping it against his clipboard, and announcing the time. Intimidated by his administrative presence, the little sprites go hide in the closet or run down to the park to play on the monkey bars, leaving me alone with Dr. Blob and his endless analysis.
But for all the disaster Dr. Blob can wreak on any project, he is (like many of these monsters) a gentle giant. It is quite possible, come to think of it, that his misunderstanding about his role is a result of my not having delineated its boundaries.
Fortunately, a simple formal letter, issued as a reminder whenever needed, should be all that is needed to get him out of the way. Dr. Blob is highly receptive to formality and has a high esteem for official mandates.
Something like this should do the trick:
Dear Dr. Blob, Although your services are extremely valuable to our operation, we are currently undergoing a series of internal restructuring protocols and will need to relocate your office and adjust certain terms of your contract. Rest assured, your compensation package will not change. As a reward for your exemplary performance, we are upgrading you to an executive-level corner office in a newly remodeled building, with a fine view of the park down the street from our current workspace. It has wood panels, room for a vast library, numerous filing cabinets, and a lovely swivel chair. Mainly, it affords you space with which to consult with other clients in need of your services. We will contact you from time to time as needed, mainly upon completion of work, and for advice with synopsis, cover letters, reading lists, and the like. Until then, enjoy your new office and be sure to wave at any sprites if you happen to glimpse them playing on the monkey bars.
It’s a win-win. Blob gets his own office, and every time he waves at the sprites, they come running back to play here, in the actual workspace, reclaimed from the domineering analyst who means well. Now we can play, discover, and be free to give ourselves over to the process of creating, until the next monster comes rumbling through.
He’s big and shaggy, and he goes around shouting: Nothing! That’s nothing! or This is nothing! You’re nothing! This whole project, whatever it is, amounts to nothing!
In yesterday’s post, I described the habit of following and leaving breadcrumbs as a practice I do “If the familiar bogeyman shows up, growling that there’s Nothing to offer.” Later in the day, it occurred to me that I had possibly misrepresented the regularity of the appearance of this character, as a sort of roving Bigfoot figure, of whom I have occasional sightings, whom I nobly fight off whenever he arrives.
In fact, there is nothing occasional about his appearance. In fact, I can’t remember a creative day without him. In truth, we live together. Always have and probably always will.
It occurred to me that I should give him some more space. Monsters like when you give them some room. They like to be acknowledged, which is why they growl and lope about breaking things. Given that I’ve already tried everything I can think of to get him to leave, from battle to poison, to attempting to lure him away with some distraction, I’ve decided to make peace with him. I’d rather live with a peaceful monster than an angry one desperate for attention. Besides, he’s surprisingly endearing (in a so-funny-looking-he’s-cute sort of way), all shaggy and one-note, always bumping into things and repeating himself.
“Nothing!” Is what he says, over and over. That’s his name, Nothing. It calls to mind a favorite childhood movie, The Neverending Story, in which a boy goes on a quest to save the known world from The Nothing that is devastating the land. That nothing was terrifying to me, mainly because it rang deeply true. As a child I sensed what I did not have words for at the time, but which was definitely present: a strong anti-life force at loose in the world. Steven Pressfield calls it The Resistance. I sometimes call it The Machine. It’s capacity to destroy comes from its ability to exist undetected.
This is why I decided to name my monsters. The umbrella title (Resistance, Machine, Evil, etc.) is useful, but the thing to understand about these forces is how they have minions going about doing their bidding for them. I want to name these, too.
So, back to Nothing. He’s big and shaggy, and he goes around shouting: Nothing! That’s nothing! or This is nothing! You’re nothing! This whole project, whatever it is, amounts to nothing!
As you can see, he’s a bit of a solipsist. Poor guy, he really can’t help himself. It’s all he knows.
Yes, I say to him, patting his matted fur. That’s right, this is Nothing. Would you like some milk?
I like Nothing! he insists, but he will take some milk. I put some out and he’s busy with that for a while, slurping away before he bangs the bowl to the floor, just to punctuate his previous statement. Which was: Nothing!
I even make concessions. I mean, he’s not entirely wrong. I actually don’t have any ideas, most days. So, if asked, “What ideas do you have this morning?” my honest answer is either something like, “I think I’ll fry my eggs instead of boil them today” or “I’ve got Nothing.”
Nothing would like me to submit at this point. But I can acknowledge that while I have no actual ideas most of the time, I am not in need of any, either. I’m here to show up and listen, and the world, as far as I can tell, is full of plenty to offer. All I need to do is look, listen, and describe.
And be patient. If I didn’t have patience going for me, Nothing would probably win every time. If the question of what to post today (or write later, or how to develop that story or solve the next problem) had to be answered before I began, I definitely wouldn’t be getting anything done. But, as it turns out, it doesn’t. Nothing is big and hairy, smelly and loud, and sometimes just eerily silent, brooding.
But Something is abundant and vast, full of more than I can possibly take in at any given time. So, I practice just being in it, dancing with it, and let Something take care of the rest. That’s all I can do. Perhaps those with endless ideas have other ways.
Maybe some people don’t live with all these monsters around them all the time. I can’t imagine what that’s like, but I can say that I don’t mind looking at these funny-looking guys. It’s quite a menagerie, really.
You take a monster like this Nothing and you talk to him, pet him and offer some milk, clean up his messes, and after a while you start to notice that actually, he’s more like Something, which would negate the whole supposed threat of his being.
But I won’t tell him that. Nothing’s got his job, and I have mine.
What’s that? He wants to know.
Oh, it’s Nothing!
Hmmmmph. He nods, very serious, spewing sulfurous smoke from his nostrils. Nothing!
And then I get back to it.
Follow-up: After hanging out with my guy Nothing today, something occurred to me. I think I will do a whole “Monster Mash” series of posts though maybe not necessarily back-to-back. I like the idea of returning to these characters. I think I can assemble quite a cast, over time. I picture something like The Muppets Take Manhattan, another favorite childhood movie.