The Third Something

024 / The Sacred Stage

Are you feeling creatively blocked? You might be thinking about your ideas all wrong.

I want to start by saying a sincere and heartfelt thank you to all of you who wrote to me after last week’s letter.

Several of you told me that you are going through similar trials yourself and found comfort in hearing about mine. I, in turn, took huge comfort in discovering that I am not alone.

It means a lot, so thank you.

(If you didn’t write but took quiet comfort in my letter, know - privately - that it is not just you and I.)

Starting from an unsteady base but I am slowly beginning a kind of creative recovery.

I am writing Morning Pages again, a daily practice which I continually neglect despite its proven success.

If you don’t know of it, Morning Pages is a daily routine of writing three full pages of stream of consciousness, by hand. (A year ago I wrote in much more detail about my morning pages practice.)

The magic of Morning Pages all happens on page three.

On page one I just blurt out whatever is annoying me at that moment, capture what happened yesterday, or something on my mind for later that day - it’s all mundane. By page two I am struggling to think of things to write. Words come painfully and slowly and I usually feel that I have drained my brain dry as I reach the end of the page, wondering how on earth I’m going to fill another side of A4.

Then - not always, but sometimes, often enough - on page three ideas and images and stories suddenly begin to materialise before me.

My two biggest independent creative achievements of recent years - Parallax and my screenplay - have both come as the result of writing Morning Pages consistently for at least two months.

I used to think the magic of Morning Pages was that they helped me dig down past the obvious ideas inside me, past the not-so-obvious-but-also-not-so great ideas, right down to the virgin layer of profound, original gold.

I am slowly beginning to understand that this is not how it works at all.

There was a paragraph I cut from the letter last week where I tried (and failed) to describe this sensation of being creatively blocked. I wrote about feeling like there is some great work inside me that I just can’t seem to access.

But, honestly, that’s a very egotistical position, isn’t it? It’s a very western (and, dare I say it, very male) affliction to put ourselves at the centre of the universe: The Great Creator™, around whom all else orbits.

It puts a lot of pressure on ourselves to deliver. It connects our output to our sense of self worth and it makes creativity feel heavy.

It takes a healthy dose of humility to accept the alternative: that you are not a creative genius, and neither am I.

In her book Big Magic Elizabeth Gilbert imagines ideas as invisible sprites that dart to and fro in the atmosphere, searching for a dedicated human being to make them manifest. They circle around an artist and if they feel good - pop! - in they go; the artist gets that lightbulb moment we are all familiar with. But ideas, Elisabeth writes, can leave us just as quickly as they arrive. If an idea learns the artist isn’t as dedicated as it first thought, it will go find someone else.

Or, consider this from Giacomo Puccini, who created the opera Madame Butterfly:

“The music of this opera was dictated to me by God; I was merely instrumental in putting it on paper and communicating it to the public”.

Or this, just a couple of weeks ago, from Nick Cave:

You are not the ‘Great Creator’ of your songs, you are simply their servant, and the songs will come to you when you have adequately prepared yourself to receive them. They are not inside you, unable to get out; rather, they are outside of you, unable to get in.

Or this, from Julia Cameron:

“Writing became more like eavesdropping and less like inventing a nuclear bomb…I didn’t have to be in the mood. I didn’t have to take my emotional temperature to see if inspiration was pending. I simply wrote. No negotiations. Good? Bad? None of my business. I wasn’t doing it. By resigning as the self-conscious author, I wrote freely.”

Do you see how this is a completely different position?

We demote ourselves from Creative Genius™ to pool typist, a secretary, a stenographer. Whether the work is any good is irrelevant - our job is just to get it down.

On some days, as I wrote the first draft of the screenplay, it felt just like this - like ideas were being yelled into my ear and I could barely type fast enough to keep up.

The magic of the Morning Pages - it isn’t in excavating some gem from within; it is an act of preparation, an act of saying “I’m here, with a pen in my hand, in case there’s anything you want to say.”

It is setting a stage, a sacred stage, for an idea to come sit beside me - and dictate.

So here’s something I am going to change in my creative work for a while: instead of trying to wrestle ideas out of myself, I am going to focus instead on being prepared for inspiration.

I will show up at the same time every day and - through my Morning Pages - listen.

Until another Sunday soon,

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