Standing alone and the spasm of creativity [recent work]

21 May

It’s been a while since I’ve given an update on recent work so here’s what I’ve been working on along with my traditional ramble about what it’s like to work as a constantly impoverished writer:

Secret footballer reveals all about what the AFL teaches on sex, women and social media – The Age
Cost of Tony Abbott’s PPL scheme is just too damn high – Canberra Times
Mothers to pay more in student debt: that’s Australia’s sexism for you – the Guardian
Melbourne may be the first smoke-free city but at what price? – the Guardian
Sherlock Holmes and the case of the missing plot – Junkee
Five ads that prove Thai Life Insurance commercials are the saddest commercials ever – Junkee
Godzilla film review – Junkee
Finding the woman inside the mother – Essential Baby

There’s a piece in upcoming Good Weekend, for which the lass and I were photographed, and another in an upcoming edition of the Victorian Women’s Trust. There’s also an article in Elle floating around and another piece in the Lifted Brow’s Sex edition where I muse upon bondage and the true nature of pain.

I also had the extreme good fortune to attend the Byron Bay Film Festival as a “troublemaker”, according to Festival Director J’aimee Skippon-Volke. As the palest white girl wearing black clothes in the village, I had a fantastic time watching an amazing array of films and making friends such as club kid icon and thereminist Armen Ra, film director Hattie Dalton (Third Star, the Banker) and producer/screenwriter impresario Ross Grayson Bell (Fight Club) who were inspirational, amazing and most were amenable for cuddles, coffee and cigarettes. The festival also gave me the chance to debate masculinity with Jack Thompson and yell “I DON’T MAKE LOVE, I FUCK” to an audience question. So, you know, meeting people, making friends, yelling at random folk about my sex life.

I came back completely recharged and curious about the world. It also got me thinking about adversity. Armen Ra in particular has had a helluva ride and yet retains more drive and indestructibility than anyone I’ve met. Hattie Dalton too, pushes through with a silent, graceful resilience that is awe-inspiring. Many creatives go through periods when doors are closed, emails unreplied, you struggle to be heard above the cacophony of life and your projects just don’t work. Sometimes it’s easily fixed, a question of rearranging your thoughts or technique, an improvement sought. It can take as little as a minute or many days, but you can still rectify things.

But other times, things just fuck up and the stain of adversity lingers. You don’t know why. A lesser person would scent a conspiracy – swathes of editors, the collective intellect of readers, all against you, the noble creative, in hostility. This approach rarely works because we are inevitably never important enough to merit such notice and organised activity.

Depressingly, the answer is far more mundane than the megalomania of conspiracy: our work just isn’t hitting the right notes and neither are we. People aren’t obligated to follow anyone’s work for any reason other than interest and sometimes you’re just not interesting. This is where adversity strikes a particularly low note because it requires the creative to unpack two different streams: what they want to do and what people want to see. These are entirely different motivations and require masses of work . The platitude to “do what you love and others will follow” is bullshit because it suggests a serene path rather than the Sisyphean toil  required, plus it assumes success will follow just as long as you love what you do.

I’m not sure about anyone else but I’m highly dubious about ‘loving’ work and it’s associated assumption of happiness. I’m not a happy person – my daughter enjoys telling me regularly I am melancholy as though it is an endearing burden she carries – and writing is not a happy task for me. I fidget, I scratch, I think of all the people I dislike and all who I imagine dislike me, I fret about reading well, about appearing intelligent and having all my facts against the ticking clock of a deadline and a desperate rush to be accepted by editors.

The only happy moment in my writing life is the brief 60 seconds after a piece has been published. There’s a frisson of excitement, like the anticipation of Christmas. Yet it all melts against the heated  drudgery of filtering past disagreement or disinterest until you realise the reason most people take a nap on Christmas Day is out of boredom.

Then there’s the time away from that deadline – the time when you get revisit  that work and see it as a whole. Or holes. I re-edit my work as I re-read and wish to god I could let these pieces set aside so we can both breathe; expand, inhale and take on a change of air. We don’t have that time, however, an utter luxury for the majority of work where a deadline is whiplash for many writers. In the review of work, you see all the areas you need to improve not only in the finished piece but in yourself. Sometimes you can’t see them, fumble for the right diagnosis and that is where adversity rots inside you as you spasm in an eternal struggle to improve.

Spasm is the only applicable word because creativity is less art than it is labor. Your appreciation is a talent, an art, but its application is pure sweat, muscles that need constant nourishment and training. Your muscles spasm because they’re not working properly and contract against you. This is the agony of adversity where frustration and improvement have the same behaviour: violent, distracting pain – standing between you and the written page.

But from adversity comes something alltogether more surprising, something more powerful than a strong muscle. Sometimes the promise of a strong muscle can take you further than already the taut sinews of accomplishment. This is the self belief that keeps Armen and Hattie going – this is the knowledge that propels other creatives forward. A simple yet potent recognition that you have the ability to train your muscles to become stronger. Not only do you know you will become stronger but  that it’s worthwhile doing so.

This is the belief that carries you forward into the fog and helps in other ways. It illuminates that clouded path you choose for yourself and what help you don’t need to reach your destination. There are times when I am offered advice I choose to ignore – it’s often great advice but it’s meant for a different writer with different aims. It’s in this slightly cold realisation that comes the added strand of solitude to the muscle of creativity. Standing alone, knowing the path you’re on. That quiet resolution you can’t follow every speck of advice because it will change that path, change the sincerity of your voice, your expression. You stand alone and it’s scary and you think the cliff face will appear and crumble under your feet. It probably will. A creative’s life is defined far more by failure than success. But it’s that strength to resolutely stand alone that will also define you.

Even then, this strength isn’t enough. Strength isn’t muscle alone, it is also energy and can be difficult to maintain over the long distances required from us. Curiosity – vital for creatives – is notoriously fragile and depleting, and something I’ve written about before. Pure energy for me comes from the realisation there is literally no other job, no other task, I would rather do. I’m useless at them. This doesn’t mean I am naturally gifted at this need to write – it just means it’s the only thing upon which I choose to focus, it’s the only task I cannot live without, it both clouds and illuminates my brain and path.  It’s not happy work, but it brings something better – contentment and the energy to press on in the face of silent adversity.

This is what keeps people going – not one of gossamered self-love, but a battle-weary gaze that sees further ahead and gets on with the fucking job at hand.


Post script: I was discussing this recently with Antonia Hayes, a fantastic novelist who I once met in the gutter, our friendship forged in drunken conversations and cigarettes. She’s recently finished an amazing manuscript which is a revelation to read. While measuring our perceived failures against the work we love (a regular topic of discussion for writers), both referenced our love for this quote by Ira Glass:

Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.

And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.

And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?

2 Responses to “Standing alone and the spasm of creativity [recent work]”

  1. solomonfaust May 21, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

    Moving and inspiring. Thanks Amy.

  2. guinivere99 September 2, 2014 at 8:08 pm #

    Hi Amy, thanks. I’d written you a long post but it got lost when I signed into WordPress . So, short story: you stopped me from giving writing away with your spasm piece. Second: the article you wrote for Fairfax recently about sext ing and the judgement it attracts was terrific. I am sick of people going all coy over this issue. I’ve written a personal account of a cybersex episode; now I will have the guts to post it. Third: I don’t make love either. I fuck, and thank god for it.

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