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Your Deathly Habits.
What has art done to you?
“My poetry, I should think, has become the way of my giving out what music is within me.” – Countee Cullen
I write today from the Word of South festival in Tallahassee, Florida. My performance was with Grammy winning guitarist Larry Mitchell and his band. It was my first time improvising spoken word with professional musicians and some moments felt positively transcendent. Sometimes you can feel that wholesome energy exchange with an audience, and you don’t want to let it go. I give all credit to the band. My words were just ornaments, but this got me thinking about how art and life and writing interact. About how the habits and environments we select affect our work.
Announcements: this very Saturday I’m teaching a fun online class called Craft Seminar: Introduction to Fiction Writing. If you’re looking for a starting point for new work, this is the place. We’ll also have plenty of time for question and answer sessions about fiction writing. Join us, won’t you?
Also, have you ever been to Maine? I have. It’s quite beautiful. And it’s even more beautiful because I’m teaching a class there called The Joy of Text. We’ll cover everything you need to know to write compelling stories and have them published. Spend your free time seeing the sights and replenishing yourself.
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Maya Angelou would do a daily mini-retreat at a hotel. She’d write there from 6 am to 2pm. Gabriel García Márquez read the news before sitting down at his typewriter. One of my friends will call and ask for a word to add to her poetry. I know many successful writers who get up before the crack of dawn, before the world rushes in to distract them from their charge.
I believe all writing is alchemy. There are a bunch of disparate parts of your life that funnel into your writing life. Some of those things feed and grow your writing. Some of them syphon and shrivel it.
For me, I’ve identified four sources that unerringly feed my writing: music, books, films, and history. For example, perhaps half of the short stories in my collection came from songs or albums I love. In some cases, I played a song on repeat as I wrote them. Many of my more obscure stories even bear the title of the song that inspired it such as “The Anchor Song” (winner of the So to Speak Feminist Prize; Bjork), “Heroes and Villains” (Beach Boys). “Ghetto University” is in my collection. Rap fans know who made that one without googling lol
Much of my first novel and upcoming novel were inspired by incredible books. I talked in a recent post “Your Top Five”) about the five books that were the foundation for We Cast a Shadow. I haven’t talked about my forthcoming book and how much of a role Mrs. Dalloway, particularly the narrative voice, played in it. I’ll most likely do a whole post on that at some point.
Yet, in both cases, when I hit roadblocks during the writing process it was unexpected films that unlocked their potential. In the case of We Cast a Shadow, it was the film Imitation of Life (1959) that helped me figure out what the book was really about. Early drafts of that book were about love of family and stretching to please them. But the published book was about all that and much more, especially the effects of contemporary racial attitudes on familial love. In other words, one of the themes of the movie transformed my book.
For the forthcoming book, without giving too much away, watching a film called Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) helped me make some big decisions regarding the plot and the main characters’ feelings about each other.
And repeatedly, my greatest inspirations came from history I learned from wonderful high school teachers, college professors, or my own studies. I’m currently loving a podcast called Literature and History, which demonstrates so much about the cyclical nature of our human stories.
But we must also acknowledge our distractions and shortcomings. I’m an 80s/90s kid. So I came up during the Golden Age of video games. I was there when Super Mario first appeared. Hell, I was there when non-super Mario first showed up in the arcade game, Donkey Kong. Mario was unnamed. The game makers called him Jumpman, but none of us kids knew that. We just knew the game was fun. I played now mostly forgotten gems like A Boy and His Blob, Dig Dug, and Elevator Action. I played the “Worst Game Ever Made”: E.T. Books have been written about its horrible delights. I was also a master at John Madden football. If there was degree in playing video games. I would have gotten a PhD. But there are no degrees, so really I wasted a lot of time.
Did you know that a full John Madden game session takes place in real time? So when I played a full game it took as long as one of the games you watch on TV. In other words, it took three hours to complete a game, and I often played several games in a row! That means sometimes I played until the middle of the night. This was when I was in law school and occasionally showed up to class groggy the next day. This was also the era when I started writing in earnest, which meant I was dividing my time between school, writing, and video games.
One day, I just stopped playing the games. I can’t even say it was a decision. It was more like in Forrest Gump when Forrest has been running across the country after the pain of losing Jenny. He gains hundreds of acolytes who see him as some kind of guru of spiritual enlightenment. But one day he just stops and moves on with his life. I was never a guru, but I’m usually good about noticing the vibe shift.
Giving up playing Madden Football (and NBA2k, and Metal Gear, and so on) meant I had more time for other stuff. That other stuff was writing. But it was also reading, watching independent film, etc.
In other words, all the little things add up. A minute devoted to something that helps your writing is probably better than a minute devoted to something that doesn’t help your writing. At least that is how it seems to me.
When it comes to art, I have a “say yes” policy. If someone asks me to do a staged reading of a play despite the fact that I have theatrical training, I’m in. I’ll sing with anyone…as long as I’m doing harmony and not lead. I get asked to moderate events all the time and I find that talking to brilliant people about their art is always enlightening. In fact, the only place where I have to throttle my thirst for artistic commune is in the area of book reading, sometimes for the purpose of blurbing, because there are more excellent books than time to read them.
The purpose of today’s post is ask what habits are feeding your creativity, and which ones are limiting it? Are you blocked? It may be time to change the balance of your life.