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.