When you write a novel, you become fully and deeply immersed in a fictious world. When you write memoir, you dive into a past that is so visceral it feels like you’re living it over again. The single most difficult aspect of writing for me and for some of the other writers I coach is how to enter that other world fully AND come back out of it on a daily basis and live in the real world.
I remember when a therapist said, 15 years ago: You need to be a writer.
I was a sobbing mess in her office in Seattle. She had a godawful New Age painting on the wall of gawdy faeries lumbering over a ham-fisted moonlit lake. My therapist was alternative and metaphysical, and I loved her, but why do New Age people have such bad taste in art? Why do New Age books have such awful front covers? I digress.
I’d just had a sophisticated journalism career around the globe. Why was I here on this floral sofa? Why was I sobbing so hysterically every day?
It’s because you need to write, she said.
I wailed back: I’m already a writer! I’m a journalist!
She said: No, not the sort of writing where someone else is telling you what subject to pick. You need to write your soul. Every day.
I wailed. I rent my garments. I tore my hair. I wanted to throw my coffee at that painting. God I hated that painting.
If I enter that world, I may never, ever come back from it, I managed to say through my tears.
So strong was the pull of my eccentric and verdant imagination. It had been starved for so long. I was a size 0 (anyone who knows me now will find that hard to believe but it’s true). My bony body was like the little shop of horrors plant that yells: FEED ME.
I told my therapist that I was terrified that if I opened that creative door, monsters would emerge. She asked me to describe the monsters.
Not monsters, with an ‘s’, but one single monster, I said, staring at my boots because that wretched painting seemed to glare like a monster from that lavender painted wall.
I can feel it in my gut ready to pounce, I whined. It’ll destroy. Gorge. Fornicate. All the other seven deadlies will rear up and take over my life.
Describe what it looks like to me, she said.
It’s not epic looking or anything, just a runt. Gristly, with googly eyes. It’s got fangs and it drools.
My therapist looked at me sideways. Why do therapists always look at me sideways? She wrote something on her pad.
Build a cage for it, she said.
Now it was my turn to look at her sideways.
Open it, she continued, to let the creative ogre out when you begin writing and close it to put the creature to sleep when you’re finished.
What about my worry that I might enter this alter-world and never come out again? I was hiccupping now, wiping my nose on the back of my sleeve.
Light a candle to start your writing session, and blow it out when you’re finished, and say something to yourself like: And so it is finished.
I went home and actually built this cage, out of wood and chicken wire. I kept it under my desk for three years. Funny when I think back on it. My first session of writing fiction was a messy one. I sobbed for three straight hours as I typed. The first short story was called appropriately Cat Got Your Tongue.
Now, I’m a full-time writer and visual artist and although I don’t sob so hysterically anymore when I write (oh but there are days when the tears do flow), I still have to come up with methods to put boundaries around my entry into these other worlds, or they bleed everywhere, and I find the real world impossible to maneuver.
I’m writing Air and am so fully immersed in Japan (where I lived for more than three years) that I got up from my writing desk the other day to get on the train and go to Shinjuku for art supplies. I was actually dressed before I realized I was in New England.
I have this issue with visual art too. I paint and then drive the 15 miles home from the studio and truly am incapable of seeing red lights as symbols for STOP. I look at them and think, how pretty, look at the composition of those 12 pairs of lights lined up in an uncanny trajectory and then how the tree line….screech, slam!
So, for all of us artists out there, how do we come back to the real world?
The answer: by consciously putting boundaries around our writing/art time. I find if I write from 8 til noon and keep it in that time package, I do seem to be able to live in the real world after noon, to remember to pay my bills and such. If I’m in the studio, I find if I clean up for at least an hour after painting — a sort of unnecessary fussy cleaning up — I am able to drive without rear-ending an SUV.
If you’re finding either a fear of entering creative work because you worry it’ll put you in such a different frame of mind you might not be able to care for your children or get to work on time, or you’re worried about invoking internal ghosts, think about what sorts of boundaries would work for you…
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