Caffeine does strange things to me. Especially when I’m half awake. It doesn’t do much for up my groggy body. Instead, it makes an immediate and thundering rush for my brain. Before long, my mind is racing but my body is no better off.
That strange shift in speeds inside yourself can get a little confusing. It can leave your anxious, stampeding mind clawing at the walls, feeling trapped by a non-responsive and lazy prison. It can get a little dizzying, but it can be a fascinating distraction. Not unlike the tipping point between drunk and sober. That moment when your inhibitions bleed away and consequence takes a sensible step back, setting an alarm for early the next morning.
I suppose that’s why, some Sunday mornings, I reach for another cup of coffee. Just to prolong the unnerving sensation of being out of sync with myself. What can I say? I write horror stories. I thrive on a little alienation, even from myself.
Today, whilst surfing the caffeine surge, I found myself remembering a conversation I had on my 28th birthday. I was an occasional friend of a semi-professional photographer back then. He was okay in small, controlled doses. That night, after he bought me a birthday drink or two, we got to talking about my writing and the fact I’d been married for around half a year at that point. When I happened to remark that I was feeling pretty good, he said something that still haunts me.
“Well, that’s your writing over then.”
When I asked him what he meant, he told me that contentment was the enemy of creation. Apparently, once you’d settled into a happy life, you stopped trying to make things. You were seduced by your own comfort.
Now, to be fair to him, he put it very eloquently. For my own part, fuelled in no small way by birthday shots, I pictured it like the scene from Bambi where all the animals fall in love and scurry off with a prospective partner, one after another.
I tried to laugh it off and brush it aside, but his words stayed with me. Every time I’ve struggled to write anything since then, I’ve started to wonder if I too content to do anything of worth now.
If that is true, then it seems unfair to me. No one ever took me aside and warned me about it before I got married. We had meetings at the church about the commitment me and Sam were making to each other. We’d gone over what marriage meant and the problems we might one day face as a couple, but no one ever said,
“Oh, you’re planning to be a writer? Better get some books done before you tie the proverbial knot.”
Surely, they were under some obligation to share that with me before the organ started playing. Besides, there is a precedent for writers settling down. There are plenty of big name writers who are both successful and happily married. They’re published. They’re filling shelves. Good for them. Also, for the record, I’m not saying creativity and happiness should be mutually exclusive states of being. It’s just that, over the years, this jagged little serpent of a doubt has grown and woven itself very neatly into my more problematic thoughts. It’s become another superstition to stumble across on my weaker days.
“You know you don’t have forever to write everything you want to write, don’t you? You know you can’t always just be lazy if you’re serious about being a full time writer.”
I hate that voice. It makes me wonder if I would be a better writer if I had no distractions to contend with. It makes me wonder where I’d be if I’d focusing only on my writing. Which, by the way, would not be a good thing for me. I’m a mess with friends and loved ones around me. I dread to think where I’d be if I’d gone off on my own.
Besides, I know this is just my selfishness coming through. It’s feeding on the fact I want to be good at this. I want to be recognised. I want a little praise and success. The anxious little voice is just the whinging only child I used to be, singing from a different hymn sheet. Sadly, it’s a tune that can get stuck under my skin far too often. Yep, it turns out here’s nothing to taint your happiness like a pinch of creative guilt.
When I’m with family or friends, I can get jittery when I start thinking like. I step back from the conversation. My hands start to fidget. I’ll toy with a remote control or anything else that’s close to hand. A mug, a glass, a magazine. Anything to cloak my twitching fingers. I’ll tap my foot. Shift my legs. It’s the same as the coffee, really. My body is happy where it is, but my mind is starting to fight the comfortable happiness.
Yesterday is a good case in point. I’d cleared the day for writing. We had nothing to do until the evening, so I had time to get some work done. A good chance to drive the story forward and keep up the momentum a first draft craves so badly. Only, my parents appeared. They needed to use our printer and, as we’d not seen them in a while, we had a cup of tea or two with them. We chatted and ended up having lunch together. It was a nice way to spend a Saturday. Or it should have been. You see, I knew I had gotten too comfortable. I had gotten distracted. So, all the time, there was that voice.
“You know you’re meant to be writing, don’t you?”
Which meant, I wasn’t really present when I was talking to my parents and my wife. Which is no good.
What really annoys me about this is that I don’t believe the concern is valid. At all. Yes, okay, I always want to write more. Granted, I’ve not had a new book out in over a year, but that worry isn’t anything new and it’s nothing I can’t handle. I also know that the success of a story doesn’t hinge on me being unhappy. It’s just nuts to think like that.
The struggling artist is a myth that’s far too closely linked with the one about the tragic clown. I don’t buy it. Not everyone who wants to make something has to be damaged in order to succeed. That’s just something documentarians and biographers use to hook the public’s interests in their latest work. It’s a plot device that’s become misunderstood as some sort of tragic deal.
“Oh, you want to be successful? Then you better be good and broken.”
There are plenty of happy, creative people out there. Contentment isn’t the enemy of creation. Artistic worth doesn’t come from discontent any more than it comes from only working in rooms with blue walls. The real enemy is in your head. Which is the key to the whole thing, isn’t it? That voice doesn’t come from anywhere outside myself. It has no more information than I do on the subject, because it’s me and I know that an idea doesn’t live or die depending only on my mood. I know I can write with a smile on my face. This is all to do with the clockwork in my head. The cogs and gears. The interlinking teeth on the gear wheels of confidence and paranoia. Expectation, entitlement and spite. Success and pride. Now those wheels you can stop spinning all by yourself, if you’re not careful.
I suppose you just have to remember is that the opposite must also be true. If you have the power to cause yourself problems, then you also have the power to fix them. You can get yourself unstuck if you got yourself stuck first place.
So, here’s what I’m aiming to tell myself the next time all this comes up. Contentment is not the enemy. Contentment is a destination. If you start feeling guilty for feeling happy, if you start believing that your own happiness can kill the success of your own ideas, then you’re never going to get anywhere. You’re going to do nothing but run around in tight, fast, ever shrinking spirals.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to make myself a drink and watch some TV with my wife. Which is fine. Regardless of what the voice in my head has to say on the subject.