The Best Teacher In The World Is A Cold, Strange, Unforgiving Audience
All you have to do is click a button to consider yourself a published author. Anyone can do it; that is one of the beautiful things about the internet. Of course, the ugly side of that is that most of what goes on to the internet will be crap.
But that's why there are audiences and curators. It's a given that as a writer and storyteller (which anyone in any field built on convincing an audience has to be) you are working constantly on improving your craft. But no matter how many books on writing you read or how many secret drafts are stored on your hard drive, you'll never gain any real lessons if you don't put your work out there and suffer the embarrassment of being much less than you know you're capable of.
As an actor, I've worked in many rehearsal rooms and a few sets. You know what I know? If I'm working on a scene that is particularly demanding or emotional and I really go for it and find myself on the ground having poured my entire heart out, I look around the room and I see no one is really paying attention. The designers and technicians have their own shit to deal with. They have jobs to do. And I have my job--which is basically to embarrass myself even--especially--while no one cares.
I approach writing the same way.
Here are five reasons why you should publish your work even if it sucks.
THE BEST TEACHER IN THE WORLD IS A COLD, STRANGE, UNFORGIVING AUDIENCE
Hey look it's the subtitle of this post.
Playwrights especially know this about writing. Their work goes through hundred of read-throughs, workshops, and previews all for one purpose.
To have complete strangers judge whether or not the material works.
In a sense, your blog is a single body of work made up of separate installations. Every time you publish you are basically adding to that single body of work that is your blog, and with each new publication an audience has more exposure to you and more reason to judge.
Playwright, essayist, and novelist David Mamet has a lot of great theories about drama. In one he quotes the Prophet Muhammad on the concept of two teachers.
The Prophet Muhammad said there is a speaking teacher and a silent teacher.
The speaking teacher is the Qur'an; the silent teacher is death.
For a writer or a dramatist or any storyteller there are also two teachers.
The speaking teacher is the audience; the silent teacher is the empty page.
Fill that empty page and let the speaking teacher see it for what it is.
It's that simple.
YOU NEED MORE ENERGY TO WORK ON YOUR PASSION PROJECTS
This is the one I feel strongest about. For some of you, blogging is all the writing you ever want to do. Woo-hoo good for you.
If you are less fortunate, you are probably more ambitious. You're working on other stuff that requires extreme commitment. You're working on a novel, play, screenplay, podcast, or the like. You're doing deep work. Very deep work that you're not getting paid for (yet).
Blogging requires a lot of attention in its own right. Consistency; quality; and marketing ability. But if you allow yourself to be consumed by perfectionism in the blogosphere, you won't have the time or energy to focus on those projects that are swimming around like bottom feeders deep in the ocean of your heart of hearts.
I don't know about you but I'm a person with ambition and I'm not going to be dragged away from my callings because I'm afraid that my blog is less than perfect.
BLOGGING SHOULD BE A RELEASE
As I write this of course, I'm thinking of how to provide value to my readers; that's important for any blogger.
But blogging should also be a place where I can walk away with my head clearer in order to be able to focus my energy onto projects I'm really passionate about. I can't tax myself to find the perfect turn of phrase or word or story arch; I need to save that mental energy for when it really matters.
Think of blogging like the jam session equivalent for musicians. You're not building your platinum album, but you're putting in the hours and keeping your creative muscles alive.
You're warming yourself up for the real work ahead.
YOUR WRITING WILL BE LESS PRECIOUS; MAYBE EVEN BETTER
When you decide to limit the time you put into writing, you can't worry about whether or not you sound profound or unique or formal or off the wall or offensive or too safe. Basically, any of the stuff that doesn't matter.
All you have time to worry about are two things.
Is my writing valuable?
Does it make sense?
When I write quickly; when I write knowing I'm going to hit "publish" right after without second guessing, I put more of myself into my writing. I'm funnier and I take myself much less seriously. And strangely I end up being more useful to you, because all that is on my mind is what works. I'm not trying to show off.
Once you know where you're going just let yourself fly.
IT'S REALLY NOT UP TO YOU ANYWAY
I know this as a stage performer. Often times the performance that "feels really good" is the one where I bore people to death.
What feels really good is often self-indulgent.
And I can't tell you the number of times where I've gone on stage and walked off wanting to quit acting all together and go chug a whole bottle of Kentucky bourbon and make myself sleep on the street because of my forever lost sense of self-worth, only to have someone com up to me and say,
"You were absolutely wonderful tonight."
With any creative craft, looking and feeling foolish is usually a sign you're on the right track. It means you're expanding the meaning of being human. And when you do that and allow others in without worrying if you're coming across as sane or sexy (there is nothing sane or sexy about what we do) you are doing nothing less than giving your audience a gift.
You're giving them a gift of who you are, which might allow them a brief glimpse into who they are.
And what better reason to be alive?
The unexamined life is not worth living.
So be bold and impress your sense of self onto the world.
Hit that dreaded idolized monster siren that is the button that says "publish."
What to do when "balance" is not an option
Balance is overrated. Obsessing over your work gives you an edge and makes life an adventure. Sometimes the "flow" state catches us out of nowhere and it's all but impossible to drag ourselves away from what we're working on. We're not going to force ourselves to go for a run or take time to eat a whole meal. So do these five things that will keep your mind and body fresh while you work.
I was afraid to put this one first but no writing can go without risk, no? Plus, it actually helps.
Horniness is an urge that can't be suppressed, so don't try to suppress it. But don't phone or text your ex (especially on whiskey). You will regret it. Don't send a weird/creepy confessional to your crush, the embarrassment will destroy your motivation for a week at least. Don't get into your head about all the people you wish you could fuck or be fucked by. And for goodnesakes don't go on and look at porn. At all.
Just turn out the lights, relax and enjoy yourself. Clear your head. You'll be amazed at how productive you are afterwards--especially if you simply rely on your own body and imagination rather than external stimuli.
Granted, I am speaking as a person with a penis. You know that painfully overused edict about writing? "I love having written?" It's the same with having a penis and masturbating.
But most of us don't have penises.
If it requires more time, effort, and/or ceremony for you then don't rush it and enjoy yourself.
The real crime is trying to repress your needs.
Get rid of everything that gets in the way of the work.
I am assuming you're single. I assume all brilliant minds, on some level, are single--even if there is someone(s) hovering around in the background. No offense. But hey, I called you a brilliant mind.
DON'T ORDER IN
I cringe when I watch movies and the sexy scientists/special agents are pulling all-nighters with boxes of Chinese take-out littered all over the office.
I can't tell you how satisfying a handful of almonds or a bowl of fresh blueberries is. How much it neutralizes my desire for something fried or processed or sugary.
Delete your GrubHub and your UberEats and keep snacks like this around. They keep you going and are 1000000% better for you in the long term.
WORK WHILE STANDING
This is a boring one, I know. But it's just worth repeating.
I don't have a standing desk. I don't have any kind of desk. I live in a box and use rocks to carve out my first drafts. No just kidding--I don't actually live in a box (anymore).
Point is, I just walk around while I think or read or write or memorize lines. The increased blood flow keeps me from getting bored. I only allow myself to sit down if I am snacking or drinking something like a cup of green tea (who am I kidding, I'm probably drinking coffee or whiskey). In that case, it's better not to override my metabolism or risk spilling my drink or choking. Granted, I end up drinking a lot while I work--but that burns calories too!
DROP AND GIVE ME 20
or fifty jumping jacks, or run around the block, or dance. It has to take less than a minute and it has to be a challenge. Move your body in a violent way. You'll feel more alive after.
MAKE EXTRA EFFORT TO BE NICE TO PEOPLE
This was my subtitle because it is very important. It's also the last on the list because if you walk away with nothing else from this post, walk away with this.
Use whatever down time you have to really spend time with loved ones.
If a project is kicking my ass I am usually very cranky. I can easily snap and say something harsh and cold to someone I care about for no good reason other than I was caught in a bad mood.
Your relationships are a lifeline. Treat people with respect. Call someone just to say hello and not to gain anything from them. Send a lovely email or a silly meme. Your friends and loved ones are just as vital and unique as you are despite your ego. If you're working all day and have to see people later do something in the interim that will take your mind off the project like showering, working out, eating ice cream, or watching cartoons. Anything. The important thing is that it makes you stop thinking about your work.
Make sure you're in a mood that makes people you like want to be around you.
There is more to life than what you put in for your art or business.
A Motto At The Intersection Of Health And Creativity
This is the first time I have talked about my health publicly:
I have a digestive autoimmune disorder. That's as specific as I'll get. I only bring it up because you will benefit from hearing my experience.
I'll never forget what the doctor who diagnosed me said in his thick Indian accent,
"Be a warrior, not a worrier."
A warrior attacks the problem without thinking. A warrior makes a choice, immediately. If something doesn't work, they move on and fully commit to the next choice.
I've been with four different specialists since that diagnosis. Not all of it is my fault--it's an extremely complex condition. But part of the issue is that I can't make a freaking decision. Drugs or no drugs? This drug or that drug? What should I eat/not eat? I haven't committed to anything. For years.
So yeah, I'm saying this to myself as much as anybody else.
Commit to something already.
I can't be on stage as an actor during the pandemic, so I'm channeling my creativity into writing. And you know what? I don't know what else to tell you other than my day is objectively better when I get writing done. I'm much nicer. I genuinely want to spend time with family and friends as opposed to feeling obligated to just sort of exist around them. I am warmer and more open, and more enthusiastic about little every-day life things.
But there's not guarantee this will happen the next day. It all depends on whether or not I show up.
See I am in no position to lecture you. I'm just a guy who knows how to arrange words in a cohesive fashion and has internet access.
You know what sets me apart? My ambition. I'm hungry as hell and I have no trouble telling you that.
Because I know you are hungry too. We're in the trenches together.
All it takes is for you to stop being afraid of what ends up on the page or the stage and just keeping your head down and doing what you were called to do.
Then you'll have no trouble facing the other aspects of your life. no trouble resting, with the certain knowledge that the battle will be just as difficult tomorrow.
The concept of the inner war; the concept of the day to day inner struggle is as old as civilization. It is as old as any conceptualization of the mysteries of time and space.
What is the "universe" today other than everything around us? It's not that big. It's right in front of us. It's the social media, the books, the people, the family, the news, the intellectuals, the influencers. Who doesn't feel that all the noise paralyzed them with indecision and misunderstanding of who the are and what they want?
No one is immune to this. Your environment and your internal conditioning inherently impose expectations on you. And that environment's only currency is fear. And the inevitable outcome of submitting to that fear is immense pain and regret.
It's aggravating when people say "the universe showed me this sign" or "the universe said that wasn't for me" or "everything happens for a reason."
Why waste the single most wonderful privilege of being a human being? Your chance to challenge what the universe gives you.
Next time you feel like you're burning out? Take the whole day off and go visit someone who has no arms or no legs. Or someone with severe neurological affliction. People are born with these conditions.
Don't waste your mind. Your body. Your heart. Your time on this earth. The sheer fact that you are alive means that you are experiencing something that literally trillions of other potential souls throughout the ages will never have the chance to experience.
Don't let the way the universe has conditioned you to sit back take that chance away from you.
The reason why it is so difficult to develop our minds about challenging situations is that asserting one's selfhood requires confronting the anguish and discomfort within ourselves.
The universe assigns us docile roles for no other reason than to test our metal. And if humans did not have a natural need to test their metal, why on earth would the billion-dollar self-help industry exist?
The important thing to remember is that these tests happen every single day. They're there every time you hit the snooze button after you promised yourself you'd wake up early to paint the sunrise; every time you choose to settle for what your mom, boyfriend, boss, acquaintance, or political rhetoric expect of you because it's easier than making up your own mind about something.
Your environment and your internal conditioning inherently impose expectations on you. And that environment's only currency is fear. And the inevitable outcome of submitting to fear is immense pain and regret.
I'm not saying you shouldn't listen to people who have more expertise or experience than you. Or people that care about you. I'm saying that if you don't know your own point of view first, it is impossible to actually listen to others. Because that which is not already distinctly formed cannot grow.
Why do you think children are so much better at getting what they want? They haven't been forced to lose their distinction yet. Children grow fast. Adults just die.
Children and animals are smarter than us. Because they know what they want and they know exactly how to go about getting it and they don't hold back.
Here's the truth:
I'm a work in progress. You're a work in progress.
I'm committing to getting out of my own way. Will you do that too?
The Universe is nothing more than a set of constructs. Some of those are incredibly real and immutable, like gravity (though, even that is arguable). But most of it exists to convince us that we have no other choice but to comply.
Try walking away to fresh possibilities and new hopes. Assert your humanity--what is creativity, other than that?
There is no path. The fog won't clear before you start walking so just start.
Don't read the book you should read, read the book you want to read. Talk to someone you don't normally talk to. Start a blog. Make YouTube videos.
You know what you're really afraid of?
But that's the whole point.
Being human is nothing short of completely embarrassing yourself.
I promise you when you actually start doing what you want, you will feel foolish.
But you might be surprised at just how easy it is.
Don't Wait To Act On Your Inclinations
You cannot approach the universe with a mindset that it is indifferent. You have to approach it with the mindset that it is actively keeping you down. It's not "the man" or "the system" I'm talking about here. It's. Well. It's your feelings. Your hesitations. Your need to hide. Which can only come from what the universe gives you. You've got to go at it like the three hundred Spartan warriors at Thermopylae against the ten million-strong army of Emperor Xerxes. Or the fierce Afghani resistance fighters against five hundred years of colonial invasions
The world is hell-bent on preventing you from developing your own mind about challenging situations.
It's part of its nature. It's a lazy red herring to blame this on social media--the problem is not solved by raging or attaching blame. Social media can have a positive effect if only it were used to encourage diversity of thought rather than tribal signposting. Social media did not create bullies; it did not create dogmatic, homogenizing ideologies; it did not create family trauma; it did not create floods or earthquakes or fires. American Democracy hasn't even been fully formed to the point where one can say that any entity, including social media, is responsible for destroying it. Voting policy over the last two hundred years makes that abundantly. Turn off the news and stop reading the statistics. You have plenty of knowledge and imagination to sit with yourself and organize the thoughts that will allow you to uncover what is actually important to you.
The Universe Is Actively Hostile
Yes, I know Carl Sagan and Stanley Kubrick and Don Draper all said that it is indifferent.
Don Draper of Mad Men says,
"There is no system. There is no big lie. The universe is indifferent."
The Universe is indifferent. Except for when it comes to attacking your mindset.
In terms of mindset, the universe does everything it can to make sure you and I stay docile. Why? For one, the universe does not care if we submit to abuse, or are colonized or wrongfully maimed, or lose ourselves to our addictions, or fuel each other's most abhorrent characteristics, or become victims of natural or humanitarian disasters. It does not care. It loses nothing out of this situation. It is indeed indifferent in this case.
But when we discover the mindset that allows us to stand up to the tyrant; to take charge of our health, to learn self-restraint, to dismiss the libels and manipulations we inflict on ourselves and each other we begin to demand something of ourselves.
And when we demand something of ourselves, we demand something of everyone else, and that means we demand something of the universe; we challenge it. And everyone fears challenge. The universe is no exception. It will attempt to squash your self-determination by any means necessary.
Call it overstatement but I'll say it anyway: Your day to day struggle against settling for mediocrity is nothing short of war.
It is the deadliest war that there is and ever was and ever will be. Because it is the only war where you can live a terribly long life and still completely waste it.
It is a war for your soul.
The world is so pernicious in its efforts to keep us mediocre that there is even a new wave of lifestyle philosophy that calls the desire for a calm and easy and undemanding life the ideal.
I have nothing against people who actually want that.
But I do know that my mind works incredibly hard to rationalize justifications for my own mediocrity by trying to convince me that I want that life too.
I don't want to be mediocre. I venture you don't either; it's why you've read this far.
You and I are afraid of putting ourselves out there. It's not even about "hard work." It's about acting on your inclinations as they occur to you. Understanding what those inclinations are in the first place. having a drink is not an inclination---it is a desire; nothing wrong with desire, but it often overclouds inclination. An inclination is something you want to do that will get you closer to who you want to be. You won't find that in a book or an article. It's about turning off the need to be smart. And remembering the need to discover.
What are you putting off? It's not me who can tell you.
Have You’re Own Mind So You Can Challenge Others’ Expectations The Right Way
By “asserting” yourself, I don’t mean yelling loudly this is who I am! I mean frankly, quite the opposite. I mean knowing how you think and feel about situations regardless of what your inner voices and the voices from outside (hint: they’re the same) are saying.
One of the best examples of this I heard was in an interview with actor David Oyelowo. Oyelowo is known for his bona fide portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and in one of my personal favorite performances, the portrayal of Prince Seretse Khama in A United Kingdom. The interview I’m referring to is on the show Off Camera With Sam Jones (if you are an actor, or into filmmaking, performing, writing, or music then watch that show). The whole interview is an hour long and it is incredible. I go back to it frequently for reference; it is one of the most concise and elevated conversations about acting and filmmaking out there.
Of all the predictable barriers to self-hood, Oyelowo would have faced growing up (racism, xenophobia, etc.) — the biggest barrier in his life? His relationship with his father. But despite his father’s vehement disapproval of Oyelowo’s chosen profession and chosen spouse, Oyelowo ultimately credits his Nigerian immigrant father with raising him with a mind of his own.
This is a brief excerpt from the interview which illustrates my point:
“I got terribly bullied when I was younger. I remember an incident where I was probably about fifteen. I was bullied by this kid who had repeated the year I was in two or three times. He was like 6'4 and looked older than the teacher…. He was constantly saying to me, ‘you think you’re better than me don’t you.’ Because I respected my teachers, I did my work, I wore my uniform properly. I didn’t go truant from school. And he cornered me in the bathroom one day and punched me square in the face saying, ‘you think you’re better than me, don’t you.’ And I went home with this swollen jaw to my dad, just real hate in my heart towards this guy. And I explained the situation to my dad. And he said to me, ‘was that boy right about what he said about you?’
‘No he wasn’t right.’
‘Ok, carry on. You know who you are. He told a lie. Carry on.’
And that is what I did to my dad. ‘You’re not right.’ Because he raised me to have my own mind about challenging situations.”What do I learn from this? Nothing short of the most important rule of power:
Always give credit to the master.Even though Oyelowo’s father gave him intense resistance for his life choices, he not only forgives his father — but in a brilliant twist, credits him for giving him the impetus to make his own decisions in the first place. This is a wonderfully self-aware tactic that frees both him and his enemy (in this case, the enemy is his father’s expectations) from the burden of resentment.
Oyelowo also relates the story of when his Nigerian immigrant father saw him play Henry VI at the Royal Shakespeare company and said, “I can’t believe they let a Black man play the king of England. And he is… my son?”
In Oyelowo’s words, his father is now “my biggest fan” and “loves my wife more than he loves me.”
Of course, it helps that he is wildly successful. But how could he have known that starting out? Some of us are in our fifties and have not escaped the need to throw a tantrum whenever the world tries to places in into a box.
Oyelowo could have played the rebellious card and screamed and shouted and been an actor and eloped out of spite.
He chose instead to come from a place of self-hood. And self-hood always encompasses the other — even when they pose a threat. Especially when that other plays the role of your superior.
And you know what? That sense of self is reflected in his work ethic. He trained at one of the best acting schools in the world, was the first Black man to play a king at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the second youngest person to play a king at that. When he came to America to pursue better opportunities in film, he didn’t bemoan the rejections he was receiving in England (even the racist ones); he didn’t go knocking on doors — he wrote his own thirty-page treatment for a film about eighteenth-century boxing sensation Bill Richmond. He married his wife of eighteen years at the age of twenty-two. This man is serious. He knows what he wants and he goes for it.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t listen to people who have more expertise or experience than you (hence, always give credit to the master). I’m saying that if you don’t know your own point of view first, it is impossible to actually listen to others.
One of the hardest aspects of pursuing your dreams? Knowing how much you’re going to let loved ones down. They can’t help having their expectations of you — some of your family members build their entire lives around their expectations of you. And that is not something that can be easily ignored. And it certainly cannot be disrespected.
But it must be challenged.
Have the wisdom to tune out the lies and the strength to respect other’s expectations without allowing them to be imposed upon you.
You know who you are.
Or, On Being A Non Writing Writer Who Writes About Writing
Everyone has a genius. Or geniuses. Or, I should say, access to genius(es). There are many geniuses and they exist outside of us.
I decided to have a conversation with one.
More on that in a bit.
First, a challenge to myself:
Spark a conversation about creativity in light of finishing the first draft of your podcast. Reference Steven Pressfield, Sheila Heti, and The Qur'an. Pretend you are not applying this pretense of a challenge to yourself in retrospect to having written the actual post already.
I finished the "first draft" of my fictional podcast. I put "first draft" in quotations because it is not so much a first draft as it is a confusing jumble of ideas and motivations.
It makes me want to cry.
I feel like a fraud because I'm writing about writing; writing about "being creative" when I haven't even come close to producing a substantial fictional narrative of my own (yet).
Steven Pressfield wrote eight successful novels before writing The War of Art, his indispensable self-help book for people seeking a creative life.
I am a non-writing writer who writes about writing.
Actually, that is the definition of a fraud.
I am writing though.
I have a blog
On this blog I talk about my experiences as an actor and finding out what the creative life means for me; I also make stuff up about my personal life; somewhere in there lost in the sand dune of words is a message about hope and grit.
I'm figuring it out.
Steven Pressfield believes that when writers (or any person engaged in a creative or otherwise challenging enterprise) do their work they are in conversation with an invisible realm of muses. They key to understanding his point of you is understanding that creativity and accomplishment comes from outside of you. It comes from another plain of existence all together. The person doing the work has one hope--something from this realm will choose to make contact with them.
All good work for anyone in any field that requires intense focus comes from outside the person. Their job is to show up as ritual.
Pressfield doesn't give specifics on this realm. At first I equated it with the angels who delivered revelations to prophets as an act of service to the creator. Beams of light traveling at impossible speed to and from the original source of the universe.
But then I thought, one certainly does not have to be a prophet of god in order to be creative. What a terrible burden to place on someone who wants to live a creative life.
One does not have to access the divine to live a creative life. One only has to access the realm of genius.
Genius does not come from the divine.
So what is genius and where does it come from?
This is totally a question that I have both the scholarly knowledge and linguistic efficiency to answer in a five minute post.
At risk of infuriating my etymologist friends (I know all of us have so many etymologist friends), before the term genius turned into a term that referred to some exceptional creative, intellectual, or natural ability in an individual it was the term genie; before that it was jinn.
It referred to an entire race of beings. The jinn in the Qur'an and other pre-Islamic Arabic mythology are creatures made out of smokeless fire that exist beyond the natural senses of human beings. Like humans, they possess free will and are given signs and messages beckoning them to do good work and to direct worship to a power that is beyond them.
They don't grant you three wishes but they are known to pull some seriously elaborate practical jokes on humans.
Bear with me for this next bit:
The jinn are not more powerful than humans. Humans are capable of feats just as incredible as the jinn. The fact that you're reading this on a screen in your hand right now is proof of that. Humans are also just as terrible; if not more terrible than jinn.
One particular jinn--known in the Qur'an as Iblis--is so literally hell-bent on proving how bad humans are they gave up a place among the angels in order to do it. If it is in fact the jinn who follow this Iblis that guide humans to monstrous and horrific (though also enormously creative) technologies and propogandas and acts of oppression, then they are making a very good case about the nature of humanity.
But jinn are not inherently evil. Jinn are simply a race apart, who build their own lives and make choices about good and evil, justice, equality, and whether to get soup or salad at the Olive Garden. And they are just as fascinated, terrified, maligned, and seduced by us as we are by them.
I differ with Pressfield that inspiration comes from a source that is somehow more powerful. We might be another people's muses.
Etymologically, the jinn are our geniuses. We are their geniuses too. We are one realm. They another. And creativity happens when we are in contact with each other. But none of us are special. Or pure. Or divine.
Creativity is messy, ugly--often incredibly boring. It is amoral. Contact with the divine is a moral act. An act of purity. Contact with the invisible realm of creativity is amoral; an act of impurity--though not necessarily harmful; it produces all that this world is good for in terms o beauty and enjoyment. It is our novels and paintings and architecture and songs and films and concerts. It is also our nuclear weapons, our snipers, our oil drills, our trash, or prison industrial complexes, and torture chambers.
Steven Pressfield would call these later developments "shadow" creativity, or things we've made because we're too afraid to face the blank page, canvas, or the need for a new element with the potential to cure cancer.
But it is creativity nonetheless. It is inspiration from the jinn. The muses. An unseen mysterious realm.
None of it belongs in heaven. And we will take none of it to the grave. It is not divine.
What we do is devil's work. The devil is not evil. The devil only seduces (that film imbued with nationalist propaganda that tempts a youth to radicalism can still be a magnificent work of art). Humans act out of their own free will. The devil is not good. Stop trying to be good and start being creative. Creativity may lead to good (the compelling, suspenseful, moving novel about the the impoverished family can inspire someone to go into humanitarian aid).
But whatever creativity leads to is outside of our control.
We act creatively because we want a sort of contact with the unseen that our bodies are capable of while having to shuffle on with this mortal coil. For better or for worse.
You as a creative don't have to be so precious about your work. It has nothing to do with divine inspiration.
Nothing about what a creative does is divine. Our muses are not special; they are not all powerful. They are no more powerful than you and I. They simply provide access to a wider world. A world all of us have access to.
Those muses can be other humans. Those who built precedence before us or our contemporaries. They can also be unseen and mysterious forces.
Access to inspiration depends on mentality more than anything else. The first step is to stop understanding genius as something special or individual.
I say we are geniuses for the jinn as well because the Qur'an addresses both humans and jinn in conjunction. it is a primary source for creativity, as well as a warning against its misuse. Its super-linguistic nature inspired a civilization of creative endeavors in every aspect of life and across ethnocentric boundaries. Spanish minarets, African sociology, Arabian astrology, Persian Medicine, Sufi poetry and more all spring from a collective source of creative energy shared by humans an jinn. Who all become geniuses when they allow that energy to transcend their metaphysical barriers.
Hmmmm, all very interesting you say. But how does this help me? You say.
I am not preaching, I am simply illustrating one way of thinking about humanity (and beyond) in terms of the collective. Something neither new nor controversial.
People don't have individual muses, or genies, or daemons. This conceptualization of "genius" is the product of the overdeveloped ego of western civilization. When we are in touch with our true sense of self, we understand that we are all interconnected. And so is our genius.
Sheila Heti published a book earlier this decade called How Should A Person Be? The book is a fiction about a New York writer struggling in her personal life; struggling with a new play; struggling to answer the question posed by the title. There is a scene in the book--and I am wildly paraphrasing here--where the protagonist's friend is giving her advice on her play; she tells her to "just do good work... to have potential... to be recognized in your field among other people, as though you're progressing somewhere collectively, rather than competing."
Now that seems to be something to aim for.
To violently reduce Heti's eloquence into my own words:
Stop trying to be a genius (I'm talking to you as a means of talking to myself). And just open yourself up to the realm of genius that exists for all of us. And help us progress incrementally, together, by just doing the work.
So I am going to cry about all my shitty first, second, third, fourth, billionth drafts that no one will ever see. But I'm going to keep writing. because I know that I'm still in the realm of invisible work.
The invisible work is stuff you do in the dark. The doing and the procrastinating and the work and the rest and the anguish and the focus and the joy and the real-world distractions. It all adds up to the wholeness of the creative act. Invisible work happens consciously and subsconsciously but none of it matters if you don't sit down and write or get up and say the lines that were written for you or finish that business model or putt the finishing touches on your sketch or put yourself out there. And even then, there is no guarantee of success. Not even close. The invisible work is necessary but delays the gratification you so want right now.
As rewarding as it is in the moment to hit the "publish" button for this or any post, I know that my real work is far ahead of me. It is going to require deep and long commitment that no one will ever see... as a writer and an actor.
Thankfully I'm not new to invisible work. Sometimes I forget the amount of invisible work I've put in as an actor. The rehearsals, and vocal work, and line learning, and learning how to be an actual person. I also forget that in grade school, instead of writing a paper about Greek mythology I wrote a play. Instead of writing a half page story based on the founding of the American Colonies, I wrote seventy-five pages that were the beginnings of a novel about an Indigenous American slave that killed their master.
Those two pieces of invisible work are forever lost. Again, I often forget that I actually did write them. They were my best work.
The difference today is I am just that much more consistent. The hard part is doing the work, never knowing if I will have material I can work with as an actor or material I can use for the post.
It doesn't matter. I have to show up.
Nowadays, people will keep calling saying, "Haven't heard from you in a while, what are you up to?" And I'll say I'm writing. And they won't see any of that writing ever. Or if they do, it will be years from now and only the tip of the iceberg. Or something like this--a blog post. Which is just as good a piece of writing as any and just as much a kick in the ass to write.
I'm going to keep writing.
I'm going to keep writing and see what the realm of genius passes through me.
Because I know that all I have to do is open myself up to see.
So how did I get in touch with my (our) genius?
I got in touch with my genius by just starting to write. Just putting my work in--work that is only good for today and not for any other day. I know that I have to do it again tomorrow and that I am just as likely to fail.
I built this entire post around the following piece of improvised dialogue. I didn't know what I was doing at first but I figured it out later. Whether or not I actually figured it out is still in question.
I'll leave it up to you whether or not the writing is any good. But I made my point.
GENIUS: Is this painful?
ME: Very much so.
GENIUS: What are you going to do about it?
ME: I'm doing what I can. I'm reading, but not sure if I'm learning anything or enjoying stories. I'm writing, but I don't know if it is a waste of time. I miss acting; I don't know if I'll ever do it again. I'm afraid of dying.
GENIUS: Does it help?
ME: It's a distraction. But I still find myself overwhelmed by sudden waves of feeling at random moments.
GENIUS: What are those feelings?
ME: Anger. Despair.
GENIUS: What do you want to tell these feelings?
ME: To fuck off.
GENIUS: Then tell them.
ME: Fuck off feelings!
ME: I need to get to work.
ME: I need to finish the work I start.
GENIUS: Do you have a question?
ME: How do I do research? And how do I pick an idea and stick with it?
GENIUS: That is two questions. Which one should I answer first?
ME: How do I do research?
GENIUS: You're already doing it.
ME: But I don't know what books to pick.
GENIUS: They will pick you.
ME: This isn't helping.
GENIUS: I know.
ME: I feel like I'm not getting anything done.
GENIUS: Not as long as you're talking to me.
ME: But if I stop talking to you, I'll feel lonely. And I probably won't get anything done anyway. At
least with you I'm doing some writing.
GENIUS: As good a rationalization as any.
ME: What the hell is that supposed to mean?
GENIUS: Exactly what it means.
GENIUS: Look, you've got time.
ME: I feel like I don't. I sense time is rushing past me.
GENIUS: That's just how you feel. You've got time.
ME: How do you know?
GENIUS: I don't.
ME: Then why are you saying that?
GENIUS: You're the one doing the writing.
ME: You're supposed to have the answers.
ME: I need answers!
GENIUS: Writers aren't supposed to have answers.
ME: I'm not a writer though.
GENIUS: Yes you are.
ME: I'm not disciplined.
GENIUS: Then get disciplined.
GENIUS: I don't know. I'm the laziest motherfucker there is. This is the most work I've done in three hundred thousand years.
ME: You're old.
GENIUS: I look good for my age.
ME: I can't see you.
In relative terms, I'm still a baby.
ME: I feel old.
GENIUS: You might as well not exist yet, you're so young.
ME: You know what I mean.
GENIUS: No I don't.
ME: Stop arguing.
GENIUS: Stop procrastinating.
ME: You said I have time.
GENIUS: Yes. I'm sure I'll have to remind you to stop procrastinating many more times after this.
ME: Why? Why can't I just get going now?
GENIUS: You can.
ME: It's hard.
ME: I'm hungry.
ME: I'm impatient.
ME: I'm avoiding sugar.
ME: I'm failing at avoiding sugar.
ME: Should I make a cup of coffee?
GENIUS: I don't know.
ME: Is it bad for me?
GENIUS: The science is inconclusive.
ME: I'll drink a lot of water after.
ME: How did Shakespeare do it?
GENIUS: Drink water?
ME: No, write.
GENIUS: His friends helped him.
ME: I don't have friends.
GENIUS: Yes you do.
ME: Not friends like Shakespeare.
ME: No one's going to want to work with me. Not like Shakespeare's friends wanted to work with
ME: I can't do this alone.
ME: So?! Is that all you can say--so?!
GENIUS: I'm your friend.
ME: Well, you're not much help.
GENIUS: I know.
ME: I'm tired.
GENIUS: I know.
ME: If you know so much why don't you help me write?
GENIUS: Oh, but I am.
ME: I need to end this. How do I end this?
GENIUS: This dialogue?
GENIUS: Just end it.
ME: I haven't found out.
GENIUS: Found out?
ME: I haven't found out why I'm writing it.
GENIUS: Then keep writing.
ME: It's getting boring.
ME: Say that one more time.
GENIUS: What would you have done?
ME: Don't you know? I would have killed you.
GENIUS: You can't kill me.
ME: Yes I can! I gave you life!
GENIUS: You think you did. But it's not you. None of this is up to you. All you did was show up.
ME: Ok real inspirational. But I actually want to write something good. Not bullshit. That takes time and planning.
ME: I don't have time.
GENIUS: Yes you do.
ME: I don't like planning.
GENIUS: Then don't plan.
ME: But I just said--
GENIUS: Figure it out. Before you run out of time.
ME: But you said--
GENIUS: You can do it.
ME: Shut up.
GENIUS: I can't. You keep writing words for me to say.
ME: I thought it wasn't up to me.
GENIUS: Just put the pencil down.
Make the cost of living your life your first expenditure; not your last
I am in the middle of writing the script for a podcast; so not as focused as I would like to be as a new MEDIUM writer. But I suddenly felt the need to take a minute to talk about the eleventh-century Arabic Jewish parable that speaks volumes towards what people need to hear in these times.
Bahya Ibn Pakuda was an eleventh-century Jewish moralist who lived in Al-Andalus; otherwise known as Muslim Spain. Ibn Pakuda tells the story of a traveler who was making their way through a harsh and dangerous countryside. The traveler found themselves stuck at a riverbank where the water was too deep to be crossed. But they had already made their way too far to be able to turn back. Desperately searching for a solution, the traveler grabbed a purse of gold coins which contained all of their material wealth. In order to get across, they began tossing gold pieces in hopes of creating a path in which they could traverse across the river. But to no avail. Finally down to their last gold piece, the traveler spotted a far off ferry boat that they in their distracted panic had failed to notice earlier. The traveler regretted having tossed away all their gold for nothing, but was emphatically relieved to have one more gold piece which they could use to purchase safe passage across the river.
Of course this being a strictly religious parable, its original intention was to highlight the necessity of repentance as a believer's first expenditure, rather than their last. The purse of gold coins is a metaphor for a believer's spiritual wealth; too often believers throw away their connection to god by making repentance their last resort and after having desperately tossed away much of their dignity.
With respect to the parable and its author, the story can still be framed outside its original context.
Too often we wait for intense moments in our collective lives, such as this one, to truly focus on who we are and the stock we hold for the lives we want to lead. And even then, these desperate times more often than not encourage us to toss away our dignity (and often our literal wealth too) recklessly rather than focus on what is just in our periphery--our purpose in life; our passage across the river.
So I encourage you to really take this time to breathe and focus on what that path across the river means for you.
For me, I've discovered that it's writing. I spent so much time at the beginning of this pandemic wallowing over how the rug had been pulled out from under me. I put so many of my eggs into the basket of trying to "make it" as an actor that I knew there was no going back. I had already sacrificed so much comfort and so many relationships in order to make my way across the harsh and dangerous countryside. And I love acting. Still do. But with everything shutting down and me at the relative beginning of my career, I was under the desperate illusion that there was also no possibility of going forward either.
It took me a few weeks to realize that before, during, and after this pandemic, I never had to wait for permission or to depend on others to give me the opportunity to act or be creative. I can still write and make my own work; work I can act in. And that was an option that was always available to me pandemic or not, despite my fear and inability to realize it.
Now I am having an amazing time waking up at four in the morning just to make sure I get a little bit of writing done. And once I've produced my podcast I'll have it up and running on my website, mohammadshehata.com
For you, it might mean something completely different. It might mean finally choosing to get to know family members you've neglected because you know you miss them, or finally prioritizing control over an underlying health condition that you've been trying to ignore, or volunteering for those who suffer most at the hands of the status quo because you know that helping people is one thing you need to do in your life.
You don't have to tax your mental and physical health panicking and feeling helpless. If anything, this is a time to really focus and take advantage of the options you do have. And it should be a reminder that we only ever have the present moment. So whatever it is you know you need to do, get on with it as your first expenditure and not as a last resort. Stop tossing away your spiritual currency and just use the one coin you need to buy passage with the boat that has always been there.
The boat is simply what you were called upon in this life to do. Whatever it is that gets you up in the morning. You already know what that is.
I hope to see you on the other side of that river.