Category Archives: Writing & Creativity
John Langan is a professor, a literary scholar, and the author of the superlatively excellent supernatural horror collections Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Tales and The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies, as well as the equally excellent supernatural horror novel House of Windows.
In 2010 I interviewed him for Demon Muse. Then in 2013 I shut that site down after a four-year run because of repeated bot hacks, and because most of its aspects had basically been incorporated into The Teeming Brain anyway. But that meant John’s interview was lost.
This regrettable situation is now remedied and reversed, because as of this moment, John’s interview is republished here to join the ranks of the other Teeming Brain interviews that I’ve conducted over the years.
Here’s an illuminating and illustrative excerpt:
JOHN: As I see it, weird fiction is shot through with a deep ambivalence about human knowledge, which may well encode a kind of skepticism towards the Enlightenment’s general faith in rationality. After all, the figures of learning in these narratives are just as likely to unleash the supernatural threat as they are to contain or expel it. The anxiety over epistemology that lies at the heart of what may be my favorite Lovecraft story, “The Call of Cthulhu,” is something that the academy has been struggling with for the better part of the last four or five decades, in the wake of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Deleuze, etc. So it’s another level of convergence that I’m only too happy to exploit.
. . . One of my favorite quotations about human consciousness comes from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature; in it, Lawrence, arguing with Ben Franklin, asserts that his self is a clearing in a dark forest into which strange gods come and go. I can remember sharing this with a particularly brilliant friend who said that if you could live as if this were true, your life would be remarkable. I can’t say that I’ve succeeded in living such a life, but I’ve remained convinced of the importance of that occulted part of ourselves.
FULL INTERVIEW: “That Occulted Part of Ourselves: A Conversation with John Langan“
Photo courtesy of Ellen Datlow
From an engaging discussion of Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind theory by writer and philosophy commentator Jules Evans, at his website Philosophy for Life:
I’m particularly interested in the link between voice-hearing, dissociation and creativity, and in the incidence of voice-hearing among creative individuals like novelists Marilynne Robinson (who occasionally hears a voice inspiring her novels), comedians Graham Linehan and Jonny Vegas (both of whom hear or have heard voices), and musicians like Lady Gaga and David Bowie (the former says she heard voices and started to act them out as personae, while the latter likewise embodied and acted out radically different personalities and has a history of schizophrenia in his family).
Not to mention the dissociative capacity of gifted actors to become other people (Le Carre called Alec Guinness’ ability to become someone else a ‘complete self-enchantment, a controlled schizophrenia’); or all the many poets and song-writers who say their poems came to them from a voice / presence / spirit / muse.
What Jaynes fails to address, I’d suggest, is the value of these ‘vestiges of the bicameral mind’. When we seem to feel or hear messages from the beyond, it’s not just a primitive throwback to Homeric times. These messages sometimes tell us something useful, beautiful and wise, something our ordinary consciousness does not know. They are often sources of moral inspiration or consolation. I’d suggest the right hemisphere is still not entirely accessible to our ordinary consciousness, and there is a value in learning how to access it through things like meditation, trance states or techniques of ecstasy (though of course there are risks as well, particularly if you end up with an inflated or Messianic sense of self).
To go a step further into the mystical, if we do receive inspiration through the right hemisphere, does that mean the origin is definitely purely material or neurochemical? Could we not consider William James’ hypothesis that the right hemisphere / unconscious is the door through which the divine speaks to us? Such has been the suggestion of various spiritual critics of Jaynes’ theory, from Owen Barfield to Philip K. Dick.
Still, the voice-hearing network is fascinating, from a theological perspective, because in some ways it suggests a very modern attitude to the gods. We hear their commands, and yet we don’t have to obey unquestioningly. We relate to them less as a child to their all-powerful father, and more like a friend to their equal, rather like Lyra’s friendship with her daemon, Pantalaimon, in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials. Happiness, then, is eudaimonia: having a friendly daemon to keep one company in life and through death.
Very well, says my daemon, looking over my shoulder as I write. But who made the daemons?
Image: “The Fury of Achilles,” 1737, by Charles-Antoine Coypel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I was reminded of these words recently when I read an interview with Andre Dubus III, published last October at The Atlantic, and saw him describing an approach to writing that, as noted by his interviewer, sounds positively shamanistic. Dubus starts from a piece of advice given by novelist Richard Bausch, which he (Dubus) claims as a kind of presiding mantra for his own writing: “Do not think, dream.” (This comes, by the way, from the anthology Letters to a Fiction Writer — another book that has long occupied an important place in my own authorial life, and that I heartily recommend.) He then shares some profound insights drawn from his own practice of writing in this mode:
We’re all born with an imagination. Everybody gets one. And I really believe — this is just from years of daily writing — that good fiction comes from the same place as our dreams. I think the desire to step into someone else’s dream world, is a universal impulse that’s shared by us all. That’s what fiction is.
. . . . [D]uring my very early writing, certainly before I’d published, I began to learn characters will come alive if you back the fuck off. It was exciting, and even a little terrifying. If you allow them to do what they’re going to do, think and feel what they’re going to think and feel, things start to happen on their own. It’s a beautiful and exciting alchemy. And all these years later, that’s the thrill I write to get: to feel things start to happen on their own.
. . . It’s very difficult to achieve this dream state, and it requires a lot of courage. And I don’t think it’s going to happen unless you can cultivate two qualities in yourself, which William Stafford, the poet, taught me when he said “The poet must put himself in a state of receptivity before writing.” Stafford said you know you’re being receptive when a) you’re willing to accept anything that comes, no matter what it is, and b) you’re willing to fail. But Americans are very impatient with failure. I think one of the many reasons people don’t end up living their authentic lives is because they’re afraid of failing — they don’t take chances. And I understand it. This is very risky, terrifying territory writing this way. But it’s the only way I can do it. Frankly, I just feel so alive when I write that way.
. . . I really wrestle with religious faith, but I don’t wrestle with this. I used to think I had no religious faith of any kind. I’ve been a father of three for years, and I never prayed until I became a father for the first time at the age of 33. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in something: Something’s out there. And the main reason I believe that something’s out there—something mysterious and invisible but real—largely has come from my daily practice of writing. There’s a great line from an ancient anonymous Chinese poet: We poets knock upon the silence for an answering music. The way I write, the way I encourage people I work with to try to write is exactly this: Trust your imagination. Free fall into it. See where it brings you to.
. . . I do not ever think about career when I’m in my writing cave. I do not. I try not to think; I dream. It’s my mantra. I just get in there and try to be these people. It’s not so I can write a book and get paid and have another book tour — though those are good problems to have. It’s because I feel an almost sacred obligation to these spirits who came before: to sit with them and write their tale.
(Incidentally, the quote from William Stafford, coming on the heels of the line from Bausch, makes me wonder if Dubus has somehow been sneaking into my house and snatching books off my shelf.)
Full story: “The Case for Writing a Story Before Knowing How It Ends“
Image by Wes Washington (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Last week I was led to quote one of Bradbury’s famous bits of life advice — of which there are many — to one of those students. It was his line about leaping off cliffs and then building your wings on the way down. Afterward, I got curious about the provenance of this quote, and this led me on an Internet search for its source or sources. Eventually I was led to an excellent 23-year-old interview with Bradbury in South Carolina’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal, obtained by them from the New York Times news service, and presently readable thanks to Google’s news archive.
The title is “Learning is solitary pursuit for Bradbury.” The journalist is Luaine Lee. The date is October 17, 1990. And the interview shows Bradbury offering some really lovely articulations of ideas, insights, and anecdotes (many of them familiar but all of them neverendingly fascinating) from his personal mythic journey. Read the rest of this entry
From the late 1980s to the early 2000s, I kept a longhand journal. It was where I learned the sound of my own inner voice and the rhythm of my own thoughts, and where I gained a more conscious awareness and understanding of the ideas, subjects, emotions, and themes that are, through sheer force of gravitational passion, my given subject matter as a writer and human being.
This writing discipline, which was powered by a combination of conscious will and involuntary compulsion (so deeply intermixed that I could never fully figure out where the one left off and the other began), began to alter itself spontaneously with my plunge into Internet culture circa 1995. To condense a very long story to a single sentence, almost from the very minute I entered the Internet fray, my desire to write by hand began to dwindle until it almost disappeared — but it remains something that I deliberately return to from time to time for inner recalibration and recentering, and I invariably find it so full of beneficial, soul-healing effects that I wonder every time why I ever abandoned it to begin with.
Now comes digital culture commentator Tom Chatfield, writing in City Journal about information age anxiety and the danger that we will be utterly swallowed by the vortex of digital noise and distraction that we have created. And he talks cogently about this very issue: the relationship between, and in fact the conflict between, the clear-souled act of writing by hand and the swirl of digital noise and distraction that otherwise cocoons us:
I have noticed, for example, that I think and feel differently depending on whether my cell phone is switched on or off. The knowledge that I am potentially contactable subtly alters the texture of my time. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 67 percent of American adults have experienced “phantom” rings, thinking that their phones are vibrating or ringing when they aren’t. I now try to build some uncontactable time into each of my days — not because I fear technology but because feeling able to say no as well as yes helps me take ownership of my decisions. Without boundaries, without friction, value slips away.
I sometimes write in longhand simply to re-create some of this friction. When I write with a pen on paper, words flow with the sense that they exist just half a sentence ahead of the nib. The mechanical slowness of writing helps me feel words as objects as well as ideas, with a synesthetic pleasure in their arrival. Composing into a physical notebook helps writing and reverie mix, often unexpectedly: sentences and phrases arrive out of the blue. Pens and paper are themselves simply the technologies of another era. There’s no magic in them, no fetish to worship. It is the experiences they enable — not what they are in themselves — that I value, alongside the gifts of more recent innovations.
Yet I struggle to live up to my own plan. I check my e-mail too often. I ache for the tiny endorsement of a retweet. I panic at an hour’s loss of cell-phone reception. I entrust ever more of my life and library to third parties, from Amazon to Apple, whose “ecosystems” seem to absorb me.
Where is the still point of the turning world where I might stand, understand, and take back control?
— Tom Chatfield, “Anxious in the Information Age,” City Journal 23.3 (Summer 2013)
I can tell you that my own experience parallels that of Mr. Chatfield with uncanny precision. Perhaps yours does as well.
Relatedly, I encourage you to go and read Mitch Horowitz’s recent article about taking a “massive leap forward in your writing through one simple exercise.” And what is that exercise? It’s very simple, and also simply revolutionary, says Mitch:
First, identify a piece of critical writing that you admire — perhaps an essay, article or review — but above all, something that captures the vitality and discretion that you would like to bring to the page. Then, recopy it by hand.
In the action of copying the piece by hand — not typing on a computer or tablet — you will discover the innards and guts of what the writer is doing. Writing by hand, with pen and paper, compels you to become mentally and even physically involved in picking apart the work. You will gain a new perspective on how the writer says things, how he deploys evidence and examples, and how his sentences are designed to introduce details or withhold them for later.
— Mitch Horowitz, “How to Take a Massive Leap Forward in Your Writing through One Simple Exercise,” The Huffington Post, September 19, 2013
Mitch goes on to describe how his hand-copying of an article by Jack Curry in The New York Times “reinvigorated my own passion for writing — and led me to focus on metaphysical history, which resulted in my two recent books: Occult America (Bantam, 2009) and One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life (Crown, Jan 2014).”
Again, my own experience parallels what’s described here, because I myself have gotten enormous authorial mileage from copying down by hand the work of other writers.
And now you’ll have to excuse me, because I’ve got to log off, pick up a pen, and spend some time blackening a few pages in the notebook (as in, a bound stack of real paper pages, not a petite laptop computer) that awaits my real-world attention. But before I do, if any of this speaks to you, then I suppose the upshot is obvious: go thou and do likewise.
Thessaly la Force: It struck me when you said we must “trust the peripheral vision of our mind.” It seems like a muscle in your body that you have to develop by training some other part of you.
Marilynne Robinson: One reaches for analogies. I think it’s probably a lot like meditation — which I have never practiced. But from what I understand, it is a capacity that develops itself and that people who practice it successfully have access to aspects of consciousness that they would not otherwise have. They find these large and authoritative experiences. I think that, by the same discipline of introspection, you have access to a much greater part of your awareness than you would otherwise. Things come to mind. Your mind makes selections — this deeper mind — on other terms than your front-office mind. You will remember that once, in some time, in some place, you saw a person standing alone, and their posture suggested to you an enormous narrative around them. And you never spoke to them, you don’t know them, you were never within ten feet of them. But at the same time, you discover that your mind privileges them over something like the Tour d’Eiffel. There’s a very pleasant consequence of that, which is the most ordinary experience can be the most valuable experience. If you’re philosophically attentive you don’t need to seek these things out.
. . . [I]t’s finding access into your life more deeply than you would otherwise. Consider this incredibly brief, incredibly strange experience that we have as this hypersensitive creature on a tiny planet in the middle of somewhere that looks a lot like nowhere. It’s assigning an appropriate value to the uniqueness of our situation and every individual situation.
. . . I think that we have almost taught ourselves to have a cynical view of other people. So much of the scientism that I complain about is this reductionist notion that people are really very small and simple. That their motives, if you were truly aware of them, would not bring them any credit. That’s so ugly. And so inimical to the best of everything we’ve tried to do as a civilization and so consistent with the worst of everything we’ve ever done as a civilization.
MORE: “A Teacher and Her Student“
The first appears at Pacific Standard and comes from the pen of independent journalist Brandon Sneed. Its title gets right to the point: “The Muse: True Inspiration or Total Nonsense?” It was published on August 23, and its accompanying teaser states the writer’s conclusion in a nutshell: “Your muse might actually be real, but it doesn’t descend from the heavens. Instead, it’s sitting inside your skull.” The article itself shows Mr. Sneed summarizing the concept of the muse in its ancient and modern guises, with references to and quotations from Homer, Ray Bradbury, and Steven Pressfield, and then observing that there is a running disagreement among many modern-day writers, some of whom subscribe to something like a belief in a real muse and others of whom dismiss such an idea in favor of an approach based on hard work and professional discipline.
In the end, Mr. Sneed comes down on the side of the too-simplistic and too-hasty conclusion summarized at the outset. Don’t misunderstand me: the article itself is interesting and worth reading, and it attempts some minor nuance by giving a pro forma acknowledgement that the “real muse” idea can’t be absolutely ruled out in principle. But Mr. Sneed comes down too easily, automatically, and unquestioningly on the side of a reductionist brain-based theory of creativity (and also consciousness itself) for my taste. This position always begs an infinite number of questions and drains away the power — not to mention the reality — of the mystery inherent in the fact of being alive and awake.
The second such article — meaning the second one that I encountered; it was actually published two days earlier, on August 21 — comes from literary author Laura Valeri, from her self-titled blog. The article’s title is “The Biology of Writing (Or Not Writing) Creatively,” and the subject is this very same disagreement between two different creative-theoretical camps. She terms them (quite effectively, in my view) “Behaviorists” and “Daemonicists,” and then uses this distinction as preface to a succinct and able exploration of the biology of creativity, with brief comments on the “flow” state, aphasia (the inability to write), epilepsy, depression, the structure of the brain, neuroscience, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s now-legendary TED Talk on the “classical” experience of creative inspiration by a muse or genius. Read the rest of this entry
(Click the cover or the linked title below to download the PDF)
Where does creativity come from? Why do ideas and inspiration feel as if they come from “outside,” from an external source that’s separate from us but able to whisper directly into the mind? Why have so many writers throughout history — and also composers, painters, philosophers, mystics, and scientists — spoken of being guided, accompanied, and even haunted by a force or presence that not only serves as the deep source of their creative work but that exerts a kind of profound and inexorable gravitational pull on the shape of their lives?
These are all questions addressed by A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius. The book’s starting point is the proposition that we all possess a higher or deeper intelligence than the everyday mind, and that learning to live and work harmoniously and energetically with this intelligence is the irreducible core of a successful artistic life. We can call this inner force the unconscious mind or the silent partner. We can call it the id or the secret self. But muse, daimon, and genius are so much more effective at conveying its subversive and electrifying emotional charge, and also its experiential reality.
Your unconscious mind truly is your genius in the ancient sense of the word, the sense that was universal before it was fatefully altered several centuries ago by historical-cultural forces. Befriending it as such, and interacting with it as if it really is a separate, collaborating presence in your psyche, puts you in a position to receive its gifts, and it in the position to give them to you.
A brief note about the history of this book
In 2009 I founded the blog Demon Muse, devoted to the subject of inspired creativity. A Course in Demonic Creativity was developed from material that I published there from 2009 to 2011. I shut the site down permanently in 2013 after repeated hacks (in the form of bot attacks, I assume) had finally tried my patience and technical skills to their limit. But that left no home for this book, so I decided to make it available here at The Teeming Brain due to people’s continued interest in it.
When I closed Demon Muse, downloads of the book were nearing four thousand. It has gained several thousand more readers here at The Teeming Brain. Additionally, various people have taken advantage of the Creative Commons license under which I published it to make it available elsewhere. I’ve been gratified and humbled to read people’s praise for A Course in Demonic Creativity over the years, and to witness how it keeps finding its way to individuals who grasp, appreciate, and resonate with its viewpoint and message.
Last year I provided an introduction to Joe’s surreal horror fiction collection Portraits of Ruin (Hippocampus Press, 2012), and as I explained here when I shared an excerpt from that introduction , the writing of it actually represented a record of my struggle in learning how to understand the book, which I presented in hopes of helping the reader learn to do the same.
Thomas Ligotti provided a blurb for the book, and when he read my contribution he commented that it could actually serve as an effective introduction to any type of poetic work. So here, as provoked by my recent engagement with Kerouac and Co., and bearing the official blessing of Hippocampus Press and Joe himself, is the full text of that intro. Maybe it will convince you to buy Portraits of Ruin and help you unlock its dark delights. Maybe it will provide you with some useful advice for approaching other works written in an unconventional style whose goal is to speak both to and from the non-rational side of consciousness.
In any case, I hope you find that it somehow speaks to the inspired madman lurking within the depths of your conventionally sane self. Read the rest of this entry
Several thousand people have now downloaded my free e-book A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius (formerly available at Demon Muse, which I have now shut down because of repeated hacks and security breaches). There’s obviously a widespread interest in the idea, experience, and practice of what feels like inner creative communion and collaboration with a guiding muse, daimon, genius, Holy Guardian Angel, pick your metaphor. My personal intuition tells me the whole subject is bound up with the zeitgeist itself, as anybody who has followed this blog for very long will already know.
Something I didn’t talk about in the e-book, but that I’ll probably mention in its possible future reincarnation as a thoroughly expanded and revised version of itself, is the rich and deeply significant connection between this subject and the I Ching. If you’re unfamiliar or only distantly familiar with this classic, civilization-shaping Chinese book of divination and cosmic wisdom, then please hear me when I say that you’re well-advised to become better acquainted with it, because the discipline of learning to consult, interpret, and apply the I Ching to your life, psyche, and circumstances can complement and intensify the Western view of the daimon muse with a powerful alternate inflection. Read the rest of this entry