The inner locus of creative inspiration
Last Monday I was the subject of an author chat at The Lost and the Damned. I think it went pretty well. I certainly enjoyed myself, and a small crowd showed up to pick my brain about topics that proved quite interesting to me. I just hope my answers proved equally interesting to them.
A full transcript of the chat is now available at the site [NOTE: Link now dead! R.I.P., The Lost and the Damned.]. Here’s an excerpt in which a couple of questions elicited some thoughts that have been playing on my mind quite a bit. For years I’ve been positively fascinated by issues relating to the creative process and the nature and origin of art. Having suffered through several years of a really agonizing creative block — which, ironically, felt supernally peaceful when I allowed myself to relax into it (and the sense of quasi-enlightenment was confirmed after a fashion by the palpably increased clarity of the Buddhist books I read during that period) — having suffered, I say, though such a thing, I’ve been drawn to devote considerable attention to what’s going on inside a person’s psyche when the creative waterworks are shut down, and also when they’re in motion, for that matter. And portions of last week’s chat were about this very subject.
I’ve given just the initials of the questioners themselves, in order to protect the innocent.
* * *
M : What made you decide to start your blog, The Teeming Brain?
Matt Cardin: I was at the end of a period of savage writer’s block that started in late 2001 and early 2002, right when I was correcting the galleys for my Divinations of the Deep collection. I still don’t know for sure why my psyche retracted so violently. But for several years I pretty much went mute, except for doing a lot of private journal writing. In truth, it felt last summer like I had gotten so sick of my own sickness, my own muteness, that I just wanted to create a public place to vent, to assert my ego. So far it’s going well. It seems to have unlocked the word mill within me. And this also was bound up with my return to composing music a couple of years ago.
L: I was going to ask what started or precipitated the block….I think most writers go through phases like this…since you answered, Matt…you might want to comment on another aspect or getting out of it or whatever…
Matt: The topic itself fascinates me. I have a long shelf full of books on writing, and the parts on creative block are well-worn. I think my own block might have had something to do with my wife’s precipitous descent into terrible illness, which started in the late 1990s. I entered a depression I didn’t realize was active. So that had something to do with it. Plus — and this feels stupid to say, but I’ve returned to the thought many times — I think the deep shock of 9/11 may have had something to do with it. On that day, I had been thinking a lot about my current writing projects, and that shattering sense of realizing that my little world of creative endeavor might not really amount to crap in the face of such events kind of marked me.
“The best approach is to develop an inner watchfulness for the things that really inspire you, for the fiery thread of your passion, and to let those outside influences and ideas come to you through that inner conduit, after they’ve been thoroughly appropriated by your subconscious mind, your secret self.”
L: [Would you] comment about the similarities and differences between composing and writing?
Matt: I find that writing words and composing music use different aspects of the personality or self, but the creative act itself is very similar, in that the best approach, the one for really producing art, is never to try actively to achieve this or that effect. As in, you hear a bit of real-life dialogue, or witness an incident, or encounter a beautiful scene, and think, “I’m going to write a story (or song) about that!” I’ve been dwelling a lot lately on the fact that the best approach is to develop an inner watchfulness for the things that really inspire you, for the fiery thread of your passion, and to let those outside influences and ideas — many of which may validly be good material — come to you through that inner conduit, after they’ve been thoroughly appropriated by your subconscious mind, your “secret self.”
L: You mentioned that sometimes in the actual “execution” of the work you find that you’re not actually writing what you had in mind…how do you handle that? how do you “listen” to your inner voice to change it so that it works so well?
Matt: I’ve written myself into a blind alley or two by not listening attentively enough to my inner voice. I work almost entirely on intuition and gut instinct when I’m writing fiction. I try to follow the swell of my passion, of the initial impulse that made me want to write to begin with, and I try to pay attention to the feeling that may occur when I’ve gotten off course. I find Stephen King’s analogy of writing as an archaeological project, in which you try your best to uncover a shape in your psyche without damaging it, to be marvelously accurate. So I always feel that a given story idea, or even a nonfiction idea like an essay, comes with a kind of genetic blueprint that reveals itself only in the actual execution, in the actual writing, and I just use my gut to feel out that shape.
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