The Creative Life: On Being Wild and Crazy
Question: Do I need a wild and crazy life so I can write something exciting?
Every autumn I work with new writers and every autumn this question comes up for students of all ages and at all different stages of life…and writing.
My life is so ordinary. I haven’t done anything extraordinary. Do I need a wild and crazy life in order to write? (Let us establish right away that not all new writers have this concern but here we consider those who do. If you have no doubt, or minimal doubt, or a way of moving through your doubt, and you value and embrace your biography, raise a glass, baby, and have a toast, because you’re already deep into your creative landscape.)
I had this worry when I first started writing, that my life, my real life, was dull and bland and sad in a very mundane way. In fact I was ashamed of my childhood and my teenage years. It all seemed so humiliating, even in the way I experienced it, and writing about anything drawn from that time gave me indigestion and a sudden urge to have the mindless sleep provided by general anesthesia.
And so for quite awhile I made stuff up in my writing (or interpreted through what I was sure was a glamorous lens) which seemed much more sexy and fascinating. Yes, my writing from that time was really horrible and trite and so contrived that at times I still blush and contemplate burying myself in the Burlington Cemetery on my beloved North Mountain. Oh my gawd.
But the thing is, I kept going, I kept writing all that ornamental stuff and eventually made it around and through and out the other side of the labyrinth of my judgmental mind and realized that whether it was parochial or not, my rural upbringing and the quaint hinterlands I came from, these were the gateways into my creative landscape, the place where my stories came together, where in fact, my ideas were lurking. They seemed to be lurking behind my terribly pretentious ideas, like stalkers. In fact they were dancing there, trying to get my attention, like relentless butterflies intent on catching my eye with a flash of colour.
But for a long time they seemed like flickering evil shadows distracting me from my very deep and important creative writing about sophisticated worlds and very, very, very important insights. This was the smokescreen — this contrived idea of what I thought was meaningful. And so it was into the darkness for we have to peek into the shadows, even with one eye closed, and see what is really beating in there.
What I found in there was not just a literal setting, the people places and things of my childhood and coming of age years, but how all of this shaped the lens through which I see and perceive the world, people, and relationships (and do to this day). It’s how I interpret all the joy and heartache, peer into this at once sparkling and murky ocean of humanity.
I always suggest my students read Marina Endicott’s wonderful novel, Good to a Fault. It’s the best example of how a seemingly very ordinary life in an ordinary place is extraordinary, how these classical themes of love, betrayal, death, deceit, nobility, tenderness and forgiveness beat behind the most deceptively ordinary life.
Many of my new students are at this crossroads, full of ideas and details they’ve been collecting. I have them keep a writer’s notebook, inspired by Joan Didion’s humbling essay On Keeping a Notebook. And it’s often when they start the notebook they worry that what catches their ears and eyes is not quite good enough. It is not meaningful enough. It is too ordinary, too boring. It`s a sea of self loathing we can drown in.
They explain that their staid lives are the very reason they are in my writing course. They’ve been feeling empty for a long time, that something is missing. And they want to fill up this creative void inside of them. And this is when I ask them to really embrace who they are, and to give up any attempts to polish or modify, to improve.
Work with what you have, for it`s all you have. It`s as crazy simple as this sounds. And I know it can be so frustrating to be told to turn inward, when you’ve just said that inside is a gaping dark hole. If you look into that dark hole, you will most likely be waiting in there, with your original eye. Take it — it`s yours.
Flannery O’Connor says that if you survive childhood you have enough to write about for a life time. A few years ago I wrote an essay inspired by this, on the idea of writing what you know. I will share that in another post.
For now, look out the window beside you and into the window of your mind and know that what you behold has everything wild and crazy that you need.