Drama As Creative Fuel

Writing cards

Drama – a renewable resource
By Elizabeth Cutright

“Keep the drama on the page.” Julia Cameron, The Right to Write

“I refuse to engage in any drama except the drama that serves me and my purposes.  I practice what I preach: if you dump drama into my life, I will put it and you onto the page,” warns Julia Cameron in The Right to Write, and today I have the perfect example of what she’s talking about.

Right before I sat down to write today’s exercise, I made the mistake of checking my email. Sitting in my inbox, like an obscene gesture from an angry driver on the interstate, was a missive from a disgruntled co-worker. “I find what you did rude and condescending” it began…and devolved from there.

That the message was in response to what I’d felt was an innocuous problem-solving decision only made matters worse.  I felt off kilter – how did this misunderstanding happen?  How was my intent so misconstrued?  And then, suddenly, I was angry.  How dare this person attack me!  How dare they impose on me their interpretation of our communication?!  How dare they escalate the situation?!!  I walked across the hallway to commiserate with another coworker and what began as a quick complaint turned into a 30-minute bitchfest about everything that was annoying and upsetting us.

Thirty minutes that I should have been spending at the page – writing it all out instead of hashing it all out.

“It could be argued that I am ruthless.  It is a well-earned ruthlessness.  I have learned through bitter experience that if I start engaging in personal dramas, I will be too tired, too distracted, too distraught to write – I cannot afford that,” says Cameron.  My experience proves she is correct.  There have been periods in my life when I’m a consistent creative – I write almost every day, I seek out new interests and new adventures; I devour books and films and music.  I live what Sara Ban Breathnach calls “an authentic life.”

But then the drama goblins will descend.  Sometimes they’re disguised as a toxic friendship, or an apologetic Ex, or a apoplectic boss.  Regardless of the costume or their agenda, the effect is always the same: a stomach pitted with anxiety, ranting conversations over cocktails, endless cycles of “how dare he!” and “how could she!” and “I can’t believe them!”

“For a writer, personal drama is a drink of creative poison.  For a writer, the willing engagement in power struggles is an act of active creative sabotage,” cautions Cameron.

And that’s the bitter sting – that engaging in drama is your own personal act of creative sabotage.   There have been epochs in my past – eras I am not proud of – when I’ve been addicted to the rush of adrenaline fueled by conflict and conflagration.  I’ve watched – and participated in – relationships that flare up like Santa Ana fueled wildfires; leaving nothing but scorched earth in their wake.  Once the furor has died down, you feel hollowed out and shell shocked….depressed and despondent.  How did it get so out of control?

There’s a quote from Garrison Keillor that I keep at my desk in a tiny, jeweled frame:

“Bad things don’t happen to writers; it’s all material.” 

It’s funny, but it’s also true.  And if we let ourselves get too caught up in the drama – whether it’s those life-defining moments of pain and loss or those day-to-day annoyances that spark a flash of anger – we miss out on valuable material.  In law school we were taught that if you don’t like the way a case is headed, reframe the argument.  Change the perspective.  Find a way to make it all work on your terms.  In The Right to Write, Cameron talks about taking the hurt and the angst of a ruined marriage and turning it into a screenplay.    That’s what we need to be doing with life’s drama – using it as fuel for our creative efforts.  After all, it’s most definitely a renewable resource!

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