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The Professional/Creative Paradox or Why Writers Are Emotional Disasters

So a few weeks ago, I was up in Portland for meetings and received a text from my fellow writer and partner-in-office crime, Chelsi. She’s a dear friend and holds a mighty pen, and I don’t think she’ll mind me telling you that she’s also completely insane. Text reads as follows:

I’m leaving. Right now. I’m serious I can’t take this bullshit.

Hallway phone intervention. Turns out she was being pressed to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite pieces she had finished months ago, pieces that were finished, done, off of her desk and out in the world. That morning she had hit her limit.

Now from a practical perspective writers often recycle research, finished work, and text scraps for other uses, so the reworking request certainly wasn’t unreasonable, but a repeated request to do so without any end in sight will make a writer want to kick a hole through a door. But we have to do it, we know we have to do it, and we have to do it often… herein lies the tragedy of the desk writer. Writing anything worth reading requires some level of emotional investment, but conversely, professional writing requires a level of detachment. Birth a bouncing baby blob of text, drop it at the doorstep, and walk away. Then come back and look at it again. And then walk away again. Now come back. Now go. Some days it’s just not easy.

In a recent creative workshop, Eric Maisel spoke about the emotional and cognitive output required to create. The math is rough here, but it takes about twelve bazillion neurons to create meaning in any artistic endeavor. That meaning… whatever it is… is like crack to a writer. We write (or do any creative thing, really) to create meaning of some kind and when it’s fucked with we become bitter, emotionally bereft, sometimes even depressed.  I felt for Chelsi—she was about to blow and not completely able to express precisely why, other than she was seriously over it.

Chelsi’s super cute, but make no mistake. She will cut you.

 

So you might say getting upset over creative differences in the professional space is just taking things too personally, or being too sensitive about your writing and I’d say you’re probably wrong about that. If you love what you do and you’re pretty good at it, chances are you’re somewhat emotionally invested in it and getting pissed off is going to be part of that process. Now people can’t run around kicking holes in doors, but there are a few things writers can do to help things go smoothly when differences occur.

1) Be briefed. It’s tough to get a vague assignment and misinterpret the lack of direction as free reign, only to have the project plan completely change last minute. Sure, changes will happen along the way… agile business and all of that, but there’s a big difference between course correction and a total rebuild. Writers need to ask a ton of questions to be clear on project expectations and version deadlines.

2) Pick battles wisely. Collaboration is always a compromise, so know what you’re willing to change or remove and what you’re willing to fall on the sword for. If you’re going to fight for something, make sure it’s for the good of the project and not an evil match of wills.

3) Step away from the monitor. Gain clarity on your project by doing something completely different for a while. Working for too long on a piece that keeps landing back on your desk only frustrates you, so go do anything but that particular project. When I was in grad school there was a guy who’d literally put his fieldwork notes in the refrigerator to “cool off” before moving onto the next draft of his thesis (I called bullshit on this one because it sounded so lame but I’m told by reliable sources that it’s true). Whatever. Do what you gotta do…

So Chelsi didn’t leave that day, and in the end, she turned out her usual awesomeness that everyone was happy with. I think it’s always interesting when creative process and professional timelines evolve from a raging, amorphous blur into something new and hopefully unexpected. Painful, daunting, and ever so worthwhile.

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Fire Pits and Fake Camping

Camping– for City Folk there’s really nothing like it. A time of rest and reflection, getting away from the conveniences of everyday living. A time for communing with nature while watching your friends light themselves on fire with denatured alcohol. Ah… camping.

I’ve been camping since I was a little kid. Yosemite, Lake Oroville, any place with fire pits and a lake. My dad would take us all over the state in a huge state-of-the 80’s motorhome, complete with bunk beds, CB radio, and a microwave oven. I’d feed squirrels peanuts and burn marshmallows and find other kids my own age and create elaborate, meandering tales to confirm my fake identity.  Travel of any kind becomes a liminal space to try out new aspects of your persona, and this camp-style storytelling was my way of developing nascent acting skills and the occasional British accent. I’ve camped twice in the past fifteen years, the last time being this weekend. I learned a few things.

Around the campfire at Lake Chabot last night I learned that we actually weren’t camping, but “cheating.” It’s cheating to camp with bathrooms and showers of any kind. It’s cheating to have an air mattress in your tent. It’s cheating to be able to hear, off in the distance among the whispering eucalyptus, the BART train making its final runs of the night. We were Cheaters–all of us. This wasn’t camping, according to the men of the group. This was Fake Camping.

I also learned last night that I’ve apparently, technically, never camped a night in my life. Real camping is a far more rigorous and ardent exercise of survival, wits, and hygiene. Real Campers sleep on the ground, preferably under the stars, with nothing more than a mat and a bag. Real Campers don’t bring pre-packaged organic salads from Trader Joe’s, or lavender-scented moisturizer. No, Real Campers scoff at that sort of thing, while pulling feathers from their beards from the wild turkey upon which they have just battled and feasted.

Wild Turkeys, Lake Chabot, this morning

Real Campers are never cold or uncomfortable. They have extraordinary senses of site and smell, especially at night. And Real Campers never get lost in the woods. They never use GPS trackers–in fact if you hike with a Real Camper he will grab your GPS and throw it to the ground and stomp on it, to save you from being a Cheater. Real Campers hate technology (even if they’re IT managers for Cisco during the week). They create detours using only the positioning of the Ursa Minor and a Swiss Army Knife.

Real Campers hunt for their survival. They wait until the dead of night, when the park rangers no longer patrol, to strip naked and smear their entire bodies with mud. Then they track silently into the woods, mimicking the rustling sound of the North American Wild Turkey. Once the target is spotted, they pounce upon their turkey-prey and wrestle them while tumbling down an eighty-foot mountainside, scaring the poor creatures to their final gobbles of life. To celebrate their food-hunt, Real Campers use turkey blood as war paint on their face to mark their victories, and while throwing their heads back, they roar at the heavens. Thunder rumbles and it starts to rain. But Real Campers are impervious to the elements of nature, so they laugh at the rain and bring their catches back to camp for the ceremonial feast.

My point? Real Campers might be a little insane. The point of camping is to have fun in nature with your friends, get some exercise, and cook some good food together. I understand the equating of Real Camping to a core human need for survival: for ruggedness, low-maintenance toughness, to not be lacking while being without. It’s not cool to loofah by the fire. I get it.

I guess I accept my Fake Camper status. Yes I can rough it, but for the most part I like being warm, and hydrated, and comfortable during my nature experience. Maybe as a city dweller, I simply have little invested in the self-knowledge to survive the elements. Modernity will provide. I dunno… I think being purposefully uncomfortable just doesn’t sound like much fun.

But one thing I do know: I’ll never kill a turkey with my bare hands. Those bastards are huge.

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