An actor friend recently expressed “I don’t wanna” about leaving town for an upcoming gig. I assumed it was less about fearing the gig and more about leaving home, but I wanted to let her know it wasn’t about wanna or even hafta.
Life used to be one giant game of Whack-A-Mole, the arcade game where you stand above a series of holes with a mallet or bat and try to smack moles as they arise randomly. In my case, however, those moles were work assignments, social responsibilities and general life requirements.
Just as I would deal with one call for my attention, it seemed two or three others would raise their ugly heads. Distracted and disoriented, I would reach for one task only to watch it recede and yet others arrive.
As a 60-second challenge in an arcade or amusement park, the game can be quite fun; a way to exercise your peripheral vision and reflexes.
As a lifestyle choice, however, it was exhausting.
A change—well chronicled in this blog—took place a couple of years ago, and my approach to Whack-A-Mole changed with it.
I still play the game, but now the moles are of my choosing. I know where the next mole will arise because I put it there.
A novel writing episode. A hockey game to attend. A poem to create. A book chapter to read. Words to cross in a puzzle. All of my choosing.
Movies to attend with friends. Colleagues to meet in a pub. Media on which to socialize. I can say yes…and I can say no.
As I learned to give up control of my life, I also made sure I gave up any over-arching sense of responsibility for the happiness or satisfaction of others. I do my best to fulfill my commitments, but I make sure I understand where my commitments end.
The result? I have never been more in control of my life.
Ironically, in my divestment of control came an unexpected freedom that has manifested itself as a muse that comes unbidden. I do not search or wait for the muse; she sits with me constantly. An earnest voice who insists on being heard.
I have become the mole. Now, it is my turn to pop up in other people’s lives—hopefully welcomed—to offer exciting new creative opportunities.
A new sketch or monologue. A book that needs illustration. An idea for a video. An invitation to photograph animals at the aquarium.
Go ahead. Gimme a whack!
(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission, but I thought I’d take a whack at it.)
What follows are a few thoughts on why I write…the moments in my life that led me to embrace my passion. It is an incredibly personal story and I hope it doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable, but rather helps them reflect on why they embrace their own passions.
I need to be creative on my terms.
When I was younger, it was all about acquiring knowledge and being recognized for having acquired that knowledge. In hindsight, I’m not exactly sure what I was planning to do with that knowledge.
In some respects, it was about solving a puzzle, which could range from how does this alarm clock work to how does the universe work. On another level, I think it was about control. Knowing how the universe worked meant knowing that there was a broader sense of organization out there; that the laws of physics and mathematics still held even when my own life seemed in constant flux. The subtle irony of entropy only occurred later.
But it was also about control in the sense that I couldn’t be expected to come up with answers, with solutions, until I had all the information I needed to make that decision. The aggravating reality of that method of control is it only works when you’re the one asking the questions. Nobody else is willing to wait until I have all of the info I need.
At the same time, I needed the safety of analysis and knowledge, I’ve also had a need to be creative. A need that has only recently blossomed as a regular part of my life.
When I was young, I was constantly creating new worlds through my stories. First, as play scenarios and then as the written word. I constantly developed short stories that took me in a million directions. Again, this might have been an attempt at control.
When I wrote, I was the master of my universe. I was the one who decided who lived and who died, who was allied and who was the enemy. I was the protagonist and the antagonist.
It was in 1977, as I started high school, that I first noticed the strength of my writing. That summer, my life changed with the release of Star Wars. So deeply effected was I by the characters and the story, that I immediately went home and started working on the sequel. My version took a very different turn than George Lucas’s—although there were some subplot overlaps—but over the next few weeks, I hand wrote 400 pages of dialogue.
I shared the script with my Grade 9 English teacher, who was impressed with the volume if not the content (my words, not hers). It was in her class that I first realized the power of my words to still and disturb an audience.
On day, Ms. Philp gave us a writing assignment that started with the sentence “I couldn’t believe it when I heard that sound.” It was supposed to be an in-class assignment, but I was onto something and asked if I could take it home to finish it. I guess she sensed something—that this was important to me—and she said yes. While I didn’t finish the story, I did hand her several pages the next day.
After reading the story herself, she decided to read it to the class. Whereas most people had written stories about funny sounds, spooky sounds or weird sounds, I had written about a man who comes upon a murder in an alleyway, first by the sound of bone and sinew breaking, and then by sight. I wrote about the fear and indecision in the witness’s heart as the murderer sees him and he flees for his life.
As Ms. Philp read the story aloud, there was silence in the room—a room of 14 and 15 year olds. No one said a word until she was done reading. It was magical for me.
I wish I could say that there was a rousing round of applause at the end and that this was the day that I decided to become a professional writer. There was no round of applause—although my class seemed to appreciate my story—and Ms. Philp continued to be supportive of my efforts, but there was no effort to foster this creative desire in a young boy struggling to define his world.
The opportunity was there. Everything was laid out for someone to recognize, but nobody tapped into it. Writing continued to be a strange little quirk of my life. I guess it was just easier to find ways to support my interest in science and history by buying me more books, taking me to the Science Centre.
What do you do for a budding writer? Get him a pen and a notebook? Buy him a typewriter?
Eventually, someone did buy me a typewriter—a vehicle to do my homework. But it quickly became the vehicle for my creative outlet, much to my mother’s chagrin. The muse hits me when I have time to be alone with my thoughts. When my day isn’t cluttered with requests for attention and responsibilities. Unfortunately, in my childhood home, those times only tended to occur when my family was asleep.
Routinely, my mother would yell down from her bedroom for me to stop wailing away at the keys. Loudly pounding them into submission. Watching the letter hammers get stuck because the thoughts occurred to me and be translated through my fingertips faster than the typewriter could accommodate. She wanted to be supportive, but not at the cost of a good night’s sleep.
It took no time at all before I had an incredible portfolio of work—half-finished thoughts, short stories—but they languished unread by anyone other than me. I had given voice to the creative urges in my soul but no one heard that voice. It was the proverbial tree in a forest. With no one to even acknowledge the existence of my efforts, did they really exist.
Where was my mentor to guide me through this process? Someone to help me hone my voice. To make my stories better. To help me get my voice heard.
To be continued…
Okay, that’s not really fair, but it is fair to say that my muse and I have not always had a great relationship.
I have abandonment issues. I won’t deny it. I am working through them. But my muse has not been a lot of help in this department. For decades, I have sought inspiration in my writing and my muse has let me down. He was more “mute” than “muse”.
For years, my pen has hovered over my notebooks, tantalizing close to writing, but ink doesn’t transfer. My fingers have hovered over computer keys, ever so close to making physical and spiritual contact, but the flashing black line in my Word document taps its virtual foot in anticipation of ideas yet to flow.
And even more frustrating, my muse can be a right royal inspiration tease—giving me glimpses of ideas that simply turn into moments of premature ideation, leaving me feeling used as I clean my laptop.
What I realized recently, however, as that my muse isn’t my muse. He is, in fact, a muse—the irony of that phrasing is not lost on me.
Inspiration isn’t something that comes to me. I have to go out and get it. Hunt it down. Leash it and bring it home. And in keeping with good psycho-eco-social practices, release it back into the wild when I am done.
Here I thought I had become so bloody advanced because I had an opposable thumb and personality that worked in clever union to produce written works of a certain majesty (more often than not, Ethelred the Unready, but majesty nonetheless).
Instead, I find I am still the hunter-gatherer of history. Leaving the comforts of home to find sustenance in the wilds of the universe or less melodramatically, a park bench watching people, the zoo watching animals watch people, a coffee shop watching the level of coffee in my cup recede.
Slowly, I am becoming a better hunter-gatherer. The threshold does not seem so high. I can generally snatch a muse without doing too much damage to it or myself.
Oh, it still doesn’t want to get caught, but what that means is I have to change my position slightly. ALL muses are bastards.
(Photos taken at Minter Gardens outside of Chilliwack, BC. An amazing place to hunt muses!)
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