Creativity is, like anything, a tool: a machine that needs regular maintenance and frequent use to remain functional. Creative inspiration usually comes in fits and starts, and if you’re not careful it can run amuck and fly out of your brain like buckshot. This is not desirable. In its primitive form, marred by Original Sin, creativity can be one of the most destructive forces known to man. It takes a lot of practice, work, and ritual to refine the creative spark into a medium of truth, goodness, and beauty.
When asked if universities stifle writers, our dear Flannery O’Connor would respond with her usual sharp wit, “My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” In one of her essays she added, “There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” The job of the artist is not to be selfish and express himself, like the postmoderns tell us. Creation requires discipline and ruthlessness with regard to one’s own work. As I’ve been making HYPNAGOGIA, working on this blog and other projects, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own personal process when ti comes to writing (my specialty) and creation in general.
DAMN FINE COFFEE
This of course, will seem superficial, but since I started drinking coffee my creative output has skyrocketed. Caffeine is probably the only substance that stimulates and relaxes at the same time. It helps to keep me awake longer and focus on the task in front of me, whether it’s a scene, a blog post, or an essay. As an indulgent person prone to overkill, I find I usually can handle about four to five shots of espresso per day. It lubricates the mind and intensifies thoughts. When I’m gearing up to write a long dialogue scene or a complicated blog post, I sip patiently from my favorite espresso cup (a lovely gift from one Morgan O’Keefe) and wait for the wave of peaceful alertness to wash over me. Espresso is my spice melange, and it must flow.
Armed with my caffeine fix I proceed to the actual writing: the putting down of thoughts onto paper. I write almost everything out long-hand. My mind does not work fast enough to keep up with the speed at which I type. Writing the old fashioned way is a much more calm, focussed, and methodical process. Instead of allowing a frantic burst of thoughts pouring out onto a page, I can limit my output to a steady flow, giving me more time to catch bad ideas and discard them before they poison the draught. I have almost four notebooks of varying sizes filled with my strangely decorative printing. Cursive is only used for important documents that will be read in their naked forms, unperfected by the beauty of digital typeface. Handwriting is kind of a pass time of mine, but that’s a story for another day.
Writing slowly allows for things to cohere better in my head. I spot flaws more easily and can sometimes fix them before I even write them down. Detachment from the computer means I can write anywhere as long as I have one of my notebooks, which I almost always do (you’ve taught me well, Harriet Welsch). Either I scribble intensely at my desk at home, or more distractedly as I pretend to pay attention and take notes in class. A notebook is a great alibi for what you’re really up to. The only disadvantage to writing by hand is that you can trick yourself into thinking you’ve produced a lot of work when really you’ve just wasted an hour and written one sentence. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this. But the alternative to writing decently little in a long amount of time is writing a lot of crap in a short amount of time. I prefer the former.
After I’ve written enough on paper, I then have to transcribe all of it onto a Word document, which is never as tedious as it sounds. In fact, it can be a mind-dulling way to pass time when you’re too tired to think. Usually I listen to some podcast, or maybe music to fit the mood of the piece I’m writing. When I wrote a screenplay for what I like to call “an indoor Western”, I listened to a lot of Ennio Morricone. Blogging, being a truly cynical exercise, requires something more bitter. “No Children” by the Mountain Goats comes to mind (look it up – it will ruin your day in the best way possible). Transcribing is also another good way to trick yourself into believing that you’ve actually been productive all day when really you’ve just written the same thing twice. However, Hunter S. Thompson did retype The Great Gatsby in full to know what it feels like to write a great novel, so maybe I’m in better company than I think.
Perhaps the most important element in keeping your creative machine well-oiled is, and this is true in all facets of life, prayer. Maintaining a healthy spiritual connection is indispensable, at least to me, to being a good artist. My own private rule consists of morning and evening prayer, a Rosary, a Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and Scripture Readings on weekdays. Of course, it can be very hard to keep this schedule perfectly, and I fail at it more often than I succeed, but ti is good to have something to which to aspire.
Prayer is the food which keeps the Christian alive. Whenever I neglect my prayers, I feel absolutely miserable, and my writing suffers. Constant prayer establishes connection with God which illumines every task to which you set yourself. The practice of ancient Jesus Prayer is my way of mentally detoxing, if you will. As I said before, the job of the artist is not to express himself, and prayer is a safeguard against this wicked and ungodly notion. Although art is not made for the artist, it must necessarily proceed from the artist. Prayer purifies the source, ensuring that the product is good, true, and beautiful. The unique talents of the artist are amplified in union with the glory of God, while the baseness and corruption of the human heart is left locked away where it can’t spill out onto the page. Prayer is like a crystal focussing scattered light into a bright beam. When done to maximum effect it makes writing a very intense process.
The artist does best to think of himself not as an original or an auteur, but as participating in the creation of God. In the Genesis accounts, and real life bears witness to this, creativity is what makes man unique. There are plenty of intelligent animals out there, but to my knowledge, humans are the only ones who create useless products for their own sakes. In Genesis, Adam participates in the creation by naming all the animals. Tolkien called this principle “subcreation” and summarized it thusly: “As subcreators, we are reflecting the image of the ultimate creator that lies within us all”.
There is only one eternal thought, and all our attempts at art are just splinters of it, reflecting its purity, its glory, and its immutability. Art needs to be judged on how closely it reflects this eternal thought. As humans with free will, we can certainly mar it beyond recognition, but we can never totally destroy it. That is probably the most comforting thing about the arts and entertainment. Ultimately, what you do and create doesn’t matter. In the end it will all be burnt up and refined into something much more perfect than the greatest of our human authors, painters, filmmakers, and architects could ever have dreamed of.