I’ve been tricked, had, hoodwinked, bamboozled. After years—10 to be exact—of working on the same high-concept novel, I have somehow been convinced to start working on a whole new novel. That’s right, completely new—from scratch!
I remember when I was at Clarion West, one of our teachers—Jack Womack, told us that learning how to write a novel happens by writing novels. He said we might have to throw out our first novel, even our second and our third, before we feel confident that we know the genre. I don’t know how my workshop-mates felt, but for me, that was truly gasp-worthy commentary.
A novel can be 400+ pages of writing. How could you write it and then throw it out? What about all the time and sweat and imagination and dedication and heart you put into those 400+ pages, how could you throw that away?
Suffice to say, my high-concept masterpiece is still on my hard drive. I don’t intend to throw it out anytime soon. In the meantime, I’m starting anew. The characters in this new book did not spring from my mind/my intellect/my social constructs, they sprang from my imagination. I came up with my new characters, coincidentally at Clarion West.
As members of the Clarion West workshop, we had to write a story a week for six weeks. It is unimaginably exhausting work. By the last week, we were all drained. So our last teacher—again the illustrious and talented Jack Womack—suggested we experiment with writing shorts. In response to the racial tensions that were in play from spending a six-week time period in mixed company, I wrote a story about two street teens. One of them suffered from self-hatred due to the predominately white community’s response to her black self.
Now, this was a departure in so many ways. One of the major ways it was a departure is that it was about race. The first story I ever wrote was about race, but since then I can’t say I’ve written any fiction that focused on the topic of race. In fact, I rarely write about anyone other than black people and aliens (who are usually based on black people). I write about black people because I live in a black world. This cushions me from the sticky realities that come from the various and sundry slights (real or imagined) that accompany interacting with people who see you as “other.”
I have once, however, written an essay about race. Nonfiction is different. I’m not afraid to handle difficult subjects, I’m not afraid to sound preachy, I don’t have to have a good story and a great character arc—all I have to do is tell it like I see it. And I did so in an essay entitled “Race: A discussion in 10 parts, plus a few moments of unsubstantiated theory and one inarguable fact,” which was included in When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories expertly edited by Bernestine Singley. I consistently avoid writing any fiction about race.
But there I was in Seattle, Washington (not New Orleans, not Brooklyn, not Bahia) and all of a sudden, I felt this palpable charge from the assumptions and opinions about race that were offhandedly included in various pieces of my colleagues’ fiction. Next thing I know, I’m writing about Sydney and Marly, specifically I’m writing about Sydney’s struggles to love herself in a world that can’t seem to love her. I didn’t consciously decide to write about race. I didn’t sit down to create two characters who would embody the issue of racial self hatred. They came out of the psychic unrest in my subconscious and I let them speak. I listened to them. I flowed with them. And now they stand at the helm of my new novel.
I’m currently reading a book called Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch. It is a book I highly recommend for any artist as it covers a lot of artistic ground. It discusses—in depth—the process of creating, obstacles and blocks to creativity, as well as the fruit of our artistic labors. Nachmanovitch deeply and profoundly breaks down the vicious cycles that keeps us circling artistic expression without delving deeply into it. He details how we judge ourselves—and in so doing imprision ourselves in procrastination or perfectionism or both. Stephen Nachmanovitch’s text has put words to concepts that have been swimming through my head over this past few months.
My sister once asked my 10-year-old neice (I think she was 10 at the time), “What do you do when you try really hard at something, and it doesn’t work?” My neice said, “Try harder.” “What if you try harder,” my sister asked, “And then you try harder again, and it still doesn’t work?” “Try one more time,” my neice said. “And if it still doesn’t work?” my sister asked. “You go outside and play,” my neice said. “Then you try again later.”
Of course, it is impossible to know exactly where that point is when we need to surrender. Every event, situation, moment is different and will require different amounts of effort and fortitude. But sometimes, we have to let go. Sometimes we have to surrender when something’s not working out. That doesn’t mean we give up forever, it just means it’s time to go outside and play.
But surrender also has other meanings. It also means dancing with the thing, rather than making a conscious decision about how it is going to be. My ego wants to create relevant work. My artist self just wants to create. My ego wants to write something that will change minds and shift consciousness. My artist self just wants to take something from my imagination and manifest it in a material form to share with others. My ego wants to win, to be great, to be among the masters. My artist self just wants to grow and experiment and have fun and get off on my own creativity and enjoy the ride.
Surrender means silencing the tongues. Silencing the tongues that say: you are “this” type of artist. You can reach “these” heights. Surrender means removing your art from the pimp block and refusing to use it to build your self esteem, corroborate your ego’s opinion of yourself, or gain entry to a new arena. Not that your art can’t do all of those things… it can. But not because you say so. Not because you need it to.
Surrender means that in the last chapter I completed in my novel-in-progress there are four woemn yelling and screaming at each other. They’re fighting and some of them are calling each other names. It’s pretty nasty. Surrender means I sit back—and though I cringe and say this doesn’t represent me. I don’t believe in the mythology that women can’t get along. This doesn’t represent my soul, my spirit—I sit back and thank it for coming through me. I save the file and move on to the next chapter. These women have seized my fingers. Surrender means I let them tell their own stories.
[I have just had a vision of my neighbor who was today wheeled out of his apartment in a wheelchair. His eyes were rolled back in his head and his face was puffy. The paramedics admonished him to keep still. “He can’t,” his girlfriend yelled. “He’s having seizures.]
Stephen Nachmanovitch writes: “Surrender is not defeat but rather the key to opening out into a world of delight and nonstop creation.” The world I have opened out to in my new novel is not a world I have lived through, is not the world of people I know, is not the world of a life I aspire to… but it is creative, it is a fun and delightful ride, and, yes, it is creation.
While reading the 17th chapter of Free Play, “The Judging Spectre” (the book is filled with very short specific chapters—the entire text is 197 pages), I learned so much about the role ego has to play in my work. In the chapter, Nachmanovitch describes the difference between constructive judgment and obstructive judgment. The difference between judgment that “facilitates … action” on “a kind of parallel track of consciousness” and judgment that runs “perpendicular to the line of action, interposing itself before creation (writer’s block) or after creation (rejection and indifference). The trick for the creative person is to be able to tell the difference between the two…”
Nachmanovitch writes: “The easiest way to do art is to dispense with success and failure altogether and just get on with it.” But Nachmanovitch acknowledges the difficulty of that simple act. The difficulty of “just getting on with art” is multiplied when we think of the various ways that the ego works in the human body.
Nachmanovitch includes a little anecdote about sitting in a room with his students and no one saying a word for fear that they were the only ones who didn’t understand the text. Then someone would finally speak up, then someone else would agree and say they thought they were the only ones who felt that way, “then everyone would reveal similar feelings (including myself!)” Nachmanovitch writes. “Only when we were finally and thoroughly comfortable with the fact that we were all equal in being three-thumbed ignoramuses could the shared work of learning begin in earnest.”
I recognize myself in this anecdote, specifically in a workshop setting. I am a highly opinionated reader, yet somehow, often I have absolutely nothing to say in response to my colleague’s work until a few other people have spoken. What keeps us all so quiet? Why do we hide our opinions and our thoughts? “Fear of foolishnes and fear of mistakes,” Nachmanovitch writes, “[which] tap into that very primal feeling we all learned as children: shame.”
Now, I consider myself someone who has a lot to contribute in writing workshops. If I could sit on my tongue about my opinion about a piece of literature, what else is fear and ego holding back in my writing life?
In Free Play, Nachmanovitch shares the Five Fears that Buddhists believe stand between ourselves and our freedom: “fear of loss of life; fear of loss of livelihood; fear of loss of reputation; fear of unusual states of mind; and fear of speaking before an assembly. Fear of speaking before an assmebly sounds a little silly next to the others, but for the purposes of [this book] it is the central one; let us extend it as “fear of speaking up,” “stage fright,” “writer’s block,” and our other old friends. The fear is profoundly related to fear of foolishness, which has two parts: fear of being thought a fool (loss of reputation) and fear of actually being a fool (fear of unusual states of mind).” Nachmanovitch then adds “fear of ghosts” as in “teachers, authorities, parents, or the great masters.”
I believe fear of loss of reputation is the one most relevant to me and my writing blocks. All my life I’ve had a high sense of self and operated from the moral high ground. Over the years, in various friendships and by participating in various self development models, I’ve learned how that sense of self has both assisted me and sabotaged me. It assists me in making me believe I can do anything. I can write a novel, I can travel the world, I can be a mother, I can do whatever I want. But it also convinces me to be judgmental and even dishonest so that I can uphold my vision of myself. Perhaps I will be something I don’t feel like being or do something I really don’t want to do so that I can fulfill my high faluting vision of myself. Little by little I’ve been eradicating those behaviors and I have a more expressed self to show for it—however, I never thought about how my view of myself impacts me as a writer.
I suppose it could make someone spend many many many years working on a novel that has a “wow” concept, but never quite gets off the ground. I suppose it could stop me from writing stories that I judge too “common” or too “boring” or too “expected.” I suppose it could make me decide if it isn’t “brilliant,” I don’t want it to be released at all. All of this can be translated as the fear of being found out as a fraud or an imposter (also known as the “not good enough” syndrome). Therapist Gail Raborn has a brief description of this syndrome at www.aurora-holistic-center.nl/artiknl/imposterus.htm. The Internet abounds with sites that will help you handle your fear of being an imposter.
Having identified these fears as blocks to creativity and productivity puts me in a different mindset about it altogether. It now seems more important than ever to relinquish that critic. Any part of me that wants to put out the most mindblowing product to the peril of all creative output is an enemy to my artist self. I want to write badder than I want to be brilliant (we used to say that when I was a kid, I want it real bad, which means you really really really really want it). I fear never reaching my full potential more than I fear losing my reputation. What good is a reputation of being a smart, loving, brilliant, and kind person going to do me, if it stops me from living the life I want to lead?
My decision to honor my writing over all other pursuits has caused me to pursue a different kind of surrender. I am surrendering my life, going on haitus, to commit all my attention to the “imperfect,” “intuitive,” newly-born novel. The fire to complete this project, now, (rather than in installments) seems like it has come out of nowhere, but it hasn’t. It comes from me a mix of various elements dancing and whirling in synchronicity. My surrender to the creativity that is moving through me, the financial support from school loans, the feedback from mentors—which I don’t want to waste—and a new level of confidence in my accomplishments as a writer.
As I am dazed, packing up my things, throwing things in storage, buying plane ticket, subletting the apartment, I realize I have no fear. I have no fear because I have total faith in my work and in the universe. It’s not just raw talent I’m relying on, but all the time and effort I have put into writing. Up until now, I have felt that I could be a full time writer, but there were other things stopping me. The need to pay the bills or the need for a cushion, but now I feel as if the universe is waiting on me. I feel I have the goods, I have the support, I have the experience and now I have to perform. It is a distinct and subtle shift. The new reality is panting, hot and urgent in my ear. Put all your chips on red, it whispers. And so I am. I may fail. I may look like a fool. The novel may never see the light of a bookstore, but I will have done all I could to make sure that this small piece of art will be fulfilled.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam