Category Archives: Writing & Creativity
With my long-running investigations into the experience of inspired creativity in the mode of the muse, the daimon/daemon, and the genius, I was interested to see this theme getting a big shout-out in the mainstream press in connection with the publication of Tori Amos’s new memoir, Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage.
Here’s Brian Gresko in Literary Hub:
Throughout Resistance runs the idea that the artist exists to serve; not just her audience, but the creative force that speaks through her, The Muses. “There are some people who think that they write their songs, and you know what, maybe they do,” Amos says. “But I don’t. I co-create.”
The Muses gift her with bits and pieces of a song—“usually only eight bars at a time”—and she works with that to develop the whole. Her writing process, as she describes it in the book, involves travel and research, word maps and free association, and most of all, listening, paying close heed to people oppressed, and critical attention to those in power. This too grew out of her time in the piano bar, when she witnessed senators sharing drinks and handshakes with lobbyists, Big Oil, and corporations.
“The Muses are quite something,” she tells me. “They’ve been with me since I was a tiny little girl, and they are real. Even my husband, who is a cynic, and an agonistic [sic; I think the writer means agnostic]—he doesn’t believe in things unless they make sense—has seen it happen. I’ll be ready to record a song that’s written and all of a sudden something I’ve never heard before comes out. For example, “Marianne,” on the album Boys for Pele, was written as you hear it on the record. And I feel I’ve never really learned how to play it properly, because when a song just downloads like that, I’m left thinking, ‘What in the world was that?’”
Under The Muses’s influence, Amos develops a Song Being, a musical form with its own soul and essence. The relationship she forges with that Being is personal and intense. Handing them off to the label, at the end of the recording process, is tough for her, and she marks it with a glass of champagne or, “when I really need it,” tequila, and a few hours alone in the studio.
“It’s not a private conversation once they leave the control room.” The Muses, she says, have made clear to her: she doesn’t own the songs or control what they mean. “What somebody thinks of a song is just as valid as what I think of it. You have to accept that, I think, as an artist.”More: “Tori Amos Is Always Listening to the Muses“
And here’s Amanda Petrusich interviewing Amos in The New Yorker:
The book is, in many ways, also a treatise on the nature of creation—on how to remain open enough to the world that you can document something true about it.
It’s about taking in, and it’s about trusting that the muses will come when they come. They don’t always come on your schedule.
Did the muses operate differently for you with the book, versus the writing of a new album?
They began to operate in a similar way. My work—on songs, as well as the book—is very much based in research. Sometimes the muses would be pushing me to research World War I, and I’d be asking them, Why? Sometimes I don’t know where they’re taking me. . . .
When I was really little, these muses would just come. It always feels bigger than me as a person. I step into my art form, and I serve. You really have to do that. The muses know if you don’t.
When you say the word “serve,” I think of religion, or the idea of serving God. It’s obviously different, what you’re describing, but it still seems to involve humbling yourself before something bigger than you. It also makes me think of your father, who was a pastor.
Yes, but maybe it’s more of an aboriginal or a native perspective. If you’re serving Mother Earth, there’s interconnectivity. You have to get yourself out of the way. Let the muses take over. . . .
You do have to be ready when they show up, and that’s not an easy task. I think it sounds easier than it is. Other artists have talked about it—the idea of pulling aside on the freeway. I know that I’ve had to just stop conversations, because I’m not going to get it if I don’t quickly write it down, or record it. People who know you get that that’s kind of how it is, but people that don’t know you can think it’s kind of dramatic. But I find that if I don’t write it down, then I just can’t remember it, not in the form that it’s being given.More: “Tori Amos Believes the Muses Can Help“
For those who find such thoughts and insights to be interesting — or maybe even, like me, fiercely gripping — be advised that they pair ever so nicely with Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk on the genius, Steven Pressfield’s insights into the muses (and their battle with Resistance) in The War of Art, Victoria Nelson’s sage advice on learning to work harmoniously with your unconscious writer’s mind in On Writer’s Block, Dorothea Brande’s sage advice on the very same thing in Becoming a Writer, Ray Bradbury’s “How to Keep and Feed a Muse” in Zen in the Art of Writing, and my own A Course in Demonic Creativity (which is the only one of these titles that you’re likely to find for free outside of a lending library).
Photo by Indolent Dandy / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
The current dawning of the Coronacene reframes and underscores an always-salient truth: Real success in writing is just doing it. Just inhabiting the act itself. Just seeing new words appear on the page. “The search for meaning distilled in an act . . . an act of meditation, an act of prayer . . . giving yourself over to sustained concentration, thinking deeply about the world around you, about your life,” as Adam O’Fallon Price lucidly and movingly puts it in an essay at The Millions:
Things that, as an author, you usually take for granted as bedrock facts of your world—a healthy reading public with disposable time and income, or the continued solvency/existence of major publishers, for example—suddenly seem made less of granite than of sand. We are advised to isolate and quarantine, and we have no idea, really, what is to come. Now, more than ever, if you are a writer, there is only you and the work-in-progress. But then, that is really always the case. . . .
Success. As I have done many times before, I interrogated this word. What is success in writing? I came to, as one so often does at these times, an unsatisfying bromide that nonetheless possesses the dull and stubborn ring of truth. Tertiary success in writing is actual or “actual” success, what we are conditioned to foolishly hope for: sales, awards, packed readings, a large and vociferous readership. Secondary success is simply getting a novel written and published—again, a huge feat for anyone to accomplish at any level of publication. But primary success—the real success—is the days and weeks and months and years of satisfying, engaging work it takes to produce the book, no matter what happens to it afterward.
We are dust, after all. Most books are dust. Nothing lasts, and short of believing in a conventional afterlife where you are admitted to some kind of successful writers’ VIP lounge, there’s no sound reason to obsess about writing a successful novel. To return to Kahnemann, what behavioral science teaches us, over and over, about happiness is that success does not really make us happy. A minimal level of financial security is a precondition for happiness. Connection with people we love makes us happy. Physical exercise and movement makes us happy. Food makes us happy. And doing something meaningful makes us happy. This is the real value of writing: it is the search for meaning distilled in an act.
Writing is, ultimately, an act of meditation, an act of prayer. It is giving yourself over to sustained concentration, thinking deeply about the world around you, about your life. It is a way of communing with yourself, and even if this regular practice results in publication, the real hard-won value is in the millions of moments that led to the book’s existence. Every day that you sit down, for as much time as you have to work, you should be grateful for the opportunity to do a meaningful thing even if—maybe, especially if—it is only meaningful to you. As much as possible, you should inhabit the act itself, seeing the success in each new word that appears on the page.
More: “Our Work and Why We Do It“
In 2017 I published an enthusiastic review of Jerry L. Martin’s God: An Autobiography here at The Teeming Brain, and also at Amazon. The book presents Martin’s account of being an atheist who was hit with an unexpected experience of what presented itself as divine communication. Over the course of about a year, he found himself involved in an ongoing dialogue with God (plus a couple of additional spiritual beings at one or two points) in which the nature of God, humans, life, death, and the universe itself were given decidedly unconventional expression. As I said in my review, these things are given added weight by the fact that Martin is no flaky peddler of New Age hype but a real philosopher whose resume gives him serious intellectual credibility. The first paragraph of his biographical entry at Wikipedia serves as handy evidence of this:
Jerry L. Martin is the author of God: An Autobiography, As Told to a Philosopher (godanautobiography.com), coordinator of the Theology Without Walls project at the American Academy of Religion and a contributor to The Good Men Project. From 1988 to 1995, Martin held senior positions at the National Endowment for the Humanities, including acting chairman. From 1967 until 1982, Martin was a tenured professor and chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he also served as the Director of the University’s Center for the Study of Values and Social Policy. He has testified before Congress and appeared on radio and television. Martin is chairman emeritus of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. He served as president of ACTA from its founding in 1995 as the National Alumni Forum until 2003, when he was succeeded by Anne D. Neal.
A few months after I wrote my review, Jerry — whom I knew on a first-name basis from having interacted with him online — interviewed me via Skype for one installment in a series of videos that he was putting together to dovetail with the themes in God: An Autobiography. The videos were to present conversations between him and some of the thinkers with whom he had come into contact via the book.
These are now being released. My own interview was published just yesterday. In it, I talk about my religious upbringing in a conservative evangelical church. I recall my early love for fantasy and horror fiction and film, with horror coming to take center stage in my late teens. I describe my sleep paralysis and nocturnal assault experiences and their formative role in darkening my philosophical worldview and emotional outlook and thus catalyzing my birth as a horror writer. I mull over the question of whether darkness or light is more fundamental as the spiritual or metaphysical ground of being. I describe my fascination with the subject of the muse, the daimon, the genius, and experiences of both divine communication and demonic possession. And I relate these things to the subject matter of God: An Autobiography. Along the way, I also recount how I first came into contact with Jerry Martin when the online excerpts from the God book that he shared prior to its publication came to my attention as I was conducting some of my perpetual research into inspired creativity and the experience of anomalous communication from a seemingly spiritual source.
Two necessary notes: First, an apology for the lousy sound quality in the video’s first few minutes. I can’t imagine why I wasn’t using earbuds or headphones. Second, when Jerry asked me at the end of the conversation to suggest a starting place for those who are interested in reading my books, I didn’t name To Rouse Leviathan because it was still in a questionable hyperspace at that time. Presently it’s set for publication next month. If the conversation were recorded today, that’s what I’d name.
To my own considerable surprise, Leviathan is finally on the way to being roused. After a six-year delay that was entirely my own creation, I can now announce that my third collection of horror fiction, To Rouse Leviathan, will soon become a reality. I recently submitted the final story — a comprehensive revision and expansion of a collaboration between Mark McLaughlin and me that was first published in the early aughts — to Hippocampus Press. Presently, I’m given to understand that cover art has already been developed and preorders will open soon. I’ll share information about both when it’s available.
Currently, you can read the collection’s table of contents at my author site. Be advised that the cover image there is just a mockup of my own creation. The contents themselves comprise the complete set of stories that made up my first collection, Divinations of the Deep (with one of them being substantially revised), the stories from my second collection, Dark Awakenings (but not the essays; see below), and a third section titled “Apocryphon” that brings together four previously uncollected stories.
There’s been some discussion about another collection to follow this one. It would bring together many of my nonfiction writings about the confluence of religion, horror, creativity, and related matters, including the essays/papers from Dark Awakenings and various uncollected items. I’ll say more when the time is right. For now, I’m just sitting here contemplating the unaccountable return of my fiction writer’s muse, who went into hibernation in 2013 due to various factors and then emerged late last year to enable completion of Leviathan. It’s a strange business, this discipline of living and communing with a demon muse.
Recently, I was interviewed for the excellent Weird Studies podcast. The episode, titled “On Speculative Fiction, with Matt Cardin,” dropped yesterday. You can listen to it with the player above or by clicking through to the site itself. Here’s the episode description:
Neil Gaiman wrote, If literature is the world, then fantasy and horror are twin cities, divided by a river of black water. Flame Tree Publishing underwrites this claim with their recent publication, The Astounding Illustrated History of Fantasy and Horror. The book is a veritable gazetteer of these two cities in the heartland of the imaginal world. Writer and scholar Matt Cardin, founding editor of the marvellous Teeming Brain, wrote a chapter for the book focusing on the books and films of the Sixties and Seventies. In this episode, he joins JF and Phil to discuss the kinship of horror and fantasy, the modern ghettoization of mythopoeic art, the prophetic reach of speculative fiction, and the cauldron of cultural transformation that was the Sixties and Seventies.
Be advised that Teeming Brain readers will likely find Weird Studies to be an essential addition to their listening schedule. It was launched in 2018 by hosts J. F. Martel and Phil Ford. J. F. is an author, screenwriter, and film & TV director from Ottawa, Canada. In 2015 I interviewed him here in connection with his truly wonderful book, Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice. Phil is an associate professor of musicology at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music whose books include Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture and a currently in-development project on music and occult styles of thought. The tagline of Weird Studies is “A filmmaker and a professor talk art and philosophy at the limits of the thinkable.” A browse through past episodes uncovers a rich feast.
In this just-published episode of the This Is Horror Podcast, Jon Padgett and I talk with hosts Michael David Wilson and Bob Pastorella about our new project Vastarien: A Literary Journal, along with other matters of interest. Click to listen or download.
Note that at the time of this writing, our Vastarien Kickstarter campaign, to fund the first year (three issues) of the journal, still has seven days left!
Here are some show notes:
Vastarien is a source of critical study and creative response to the corpus of Thomas Ligotti as well as associated authors and ideas.
Support Vastarien on Kickstarter
[03:30] Vastarien origin story
[08:40] Why Vastarien title
[20:20] Penguin edition Conspiracy Against The Human Race/Cadabra Records Ligotti’s The Bungalow House
[28:10] Jon Padgett’s final message (in this podcast not in life)
[31:10] What is the worst thing that has happened to you as a result of your own mind or imagination
[34:20] Physical and mental and other sensations during sleep paralysis
[45:45] The creative self and self
[51:40] Andrew M. Reichart, via Patreon,
[54:40] Scott Kemper, via Patreon, wants to know about other Ligotti-esque authors to become acquainted with
[57:40] Films and TV shows that may appeal to Ligotti fans
[01:10:00] Kendra Temples, via Patreon, asks anti-natalism and philosophical pessimism and impact
[01:18:00] How Gnosticism fits into the vision of Vastarien
[01:22:25] What should and shouldn’t people submit to Vastarien
[01:26:35] Final question to ponder
Here’s the second and final part of my recent interview for the This Is Horror podcast. Co-hosts Michael David Wilson and Bob Pastorella conducted the whole thing skillfully, so hats off to them.
Readers who have followed the saga of the birth of Horror Literature through History may be especially interested to hear that I spent a few minutes in this interview talking about entries that did not get included in the encyclopedia, and about my regrets over this. Other topics are noted on the graphic above (but they’re not the only ones broached).
“Matt Cardin on Horror and Spirituality, Thomas Ligotti, and Alan Watts” – An interview for the This Is Horror podcast
I was recently interviewed by the good folks at This Is Horror for their popular podcast. Here’s the result, published today as the first of two parts.
The conversation with TIH mastermind Michael David Wilson and co-host Bob Pastorella turned out to be extremely wide-ranging. We talked about my Horror Literature through History encyclopedia plus many more things, including my childhood preoccupation with fantasy and science fiction that eventually shaded over into horror; my own horror fiction; the reality or unreality of God, the supernatural, and the paranormal; the work and philosophy of Robert Anton Wilson; my self-identification as a Zen Christian; the transformation of the world into a digital dystopia; the works of Thomas Ligotti and Jon Padgett; the books and spiritual philosophy of Alan Watts; my creativity ebook A Course in Demonic Creativity; and Patrick Harpur’s Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld. Michael describes it this way: “It’s the first of our two-part conversation with Matt Cardin on the This Is Horror Podcast. We chat about philosophy, existentialism, spirituality, our perception of reality … we even talk a little bit about horror fiction.” Click the image to visit the site and access the podcast.
Much to my surprise, a two-volume encyclopedia priced for institutional purchase by academic and public libraries has become a bestseller at Amazon. I don’t know the actual sales figures, and I’m sure they’re pretty small in terms of absolute numbers, since the book’s category (the history and criticism of horror and supernatural literature) is a rather narrow one. In other words, a book of this type probably doesn’t have to move many units in order to qualify as a bestseller. But for what it’s worth, for much of the past two weeks Horror Literature through History has hovered in the top ten books in that category, peaking at number six and then dropping much lower, but then spiking up again a few times. Amazon sold out of its original stock of the title and had to order more. A couple of days ago I saw that it was briefly flagged as the bestselling new encyclopedia of any kind. Currently those numbers have trailed off again.
In any event, I hadn’t expected so much interest from individual readers, given the book’s steep pricing. I’ve seen a couple of early readers among that crowd speaking glowingly of it in an online forum that I frequent, so that felt good. There’s a forthcoming interview with me about the project at a major horror website. I’m also slated to be interviewed on a major horror podcast a few days from now. I’ll post the links when they become available. In the meantime, if any of my Teeming Brain readers are among those who have purchased the encyclopedia, please know that I sincerely appreciate your interest and support, and I hope the book rewards your investment of time and money.
Update, October 17: The encyclopedia has also sold out at the website for Barnes & Noble.