Friend or Fiend? What monstrosities must we commit at the altar of creativity?
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
Do you have a line in the sand? A border you will not cross? A rule that will never be broken?
I ask because I believe most of us carry around some sort of moral playbook in the back of our heads. We know with certainty the things we “will not do” no matter what enticement presents itself. For some, the Ten Commandments offer a fantastic starting point. For others, the list can be complex and contextual – a sort of, “I’d never do that, unless.”
Growing up in California in that heady, latch-key-kid era of the early-80s, my childhood was defined by freedom. I roamed in a forest of exhalations touting personal liberty and seizing the opportunity to do whatever-the-hell-you-want (within reason, I can hear my mother whisper).
Carpe Diem! Cried Robin Williams, and a generation of Xers took heed.
In that vast and unattended wilderness of Reagan-era suburbia, we were only limited by the number of quarters in our pocket (hopefully enough to get to the third level of Ms. Pac Man) and whether or not we could get there on our bike. With age, the restrictions of our youth become irrelevant in the face of driver’s licenses and part-time jobs. Soon you’re bunked up with roommates or moving in with your significant other. New obstacles emerge. New rules to follow.
“There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.”
So what would you do if pragmatism took a holiday? Think of it as something akin to the film, The Purge, where the laws are suspended for 24 hours, and anything goes. Just try not to murder anybody (or at least keep the killing on the page)
What would your writing or art look like when powered by infinite possibility?
I suspect that if you’re anything like me, you can’t really ignore the structures and boundaries you’ve built over a lifetime. Limitless creativity seems impossible, perhaps even superfluous. After all, creation (and creativity) work best with context, right?
But I bet you’re little rulebook includes some loopholes you could exploit; some workarounds nimble enough to stall the inner critic, thwart the writer’s block and re-invigorate your work.
“The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.”
In a recent article for The Paris Review, writer Claire Dederer wonders if true artistry requires the artist to become a monster. “Am I a monster? I’ve never killed anyone,” she writes, before concluding that writing a book could, in and of itself, be an act of monstrosity. “And maybe that makes me monstrous, in a very specific kind of way.”
Citing critic Walter Benjamin’s declaration that, “At the base of every major work of art is a pile of barbarism,” Dederer wonders if even small work can carry with it a smidgen of barbarism. Are all of us, in the course of performing acts of creativity, transforming into monsters? And if so, how far do we go to reach our true ability?
“I have to wonder,” admits Dederer, “maybe I’m not monstrous enough. I’m aware of my own failings as a writer—indeed I know the list to a fare-thee-well, and worse are the failures that I know I’m failing to know— but a little part of me has to ask: if I were more selfish, would my work be better? Should I aspire to greater selfishness?”
Selfishness is really just another line in the sand. Another personally defined boundary. “I will do this, but not that.” I find I’m often dancing along that edge of egoism and empathy. When do I pull up the gates? Can I put up defenses and still stay connected to the world?
How much will my loved ones tolerate my self-involvement and my (hopefully barely perceptible) narcissism before I eat up all my goodwill and find myself surrounded by a tribe of angry and indignant tribesman performing some sort of creative intervention?
Going further into the metaphor, Derderer namechecks Jenny Offill as a sort of writerly role model, highlighting a passage from her novel, Dept. of Speculation.
“My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his umbrella. Véra licked his stamps for him.”
“An art monster, I thought when I read this,” says Dederer. “Yes, I’d like to be one of those.”
“The female writers I know yearn to be more monstrous,” she adds. “They say it in off-hand, ha-ha-ha ways: ‘I wish I had a wife.’
“What does that mean, really?” she asks. “It means you wish to abandon the tasks of nurturing in order to perform the selfish sacraments of being an artist.”
What if I’m not monster enough?
In King Kong, the fabulous beast meets his ruin by falling in love with a beautiful blond and eventually escaping his gilded cage only to die while swatting at biplanes from the peak of the Empire State Building. There’s a reason that narrative gets retold every decade or so. For the writer, the allegory can be a powerful lure: wildness trapped by commitment masquerading as passion, with self-immolation the only escape.
But do we really have to kill ourselves in order to stay true to our artistic nature?
“Maybe, as a female writer, you don’t kill yourself, or abandon your children,” ponders Dederer. “But you abandon something, some nurturing part of yourself.”
“When you finish a book, what lies littered on the ground are small broken things: broken dates, broken promises, broken engagements. Also other, more important forgettings and failures: children’s homework left unchecked, parents left untelephoned, spousal sex unhad. Those things have to get broken for the book to get written.”
I believe we love the anti-hero because we relish the idea of a boundless existence and we wonder if we have the same capability to ignore the strictures of society and wholly pursue our own desires and ambitions. While the monsters who gnash their teeth and flex their claws are terrifying, many of us have been seduced by the knowing grin of the charming demon.
“God is love,” someone once scrawled on the door of a bathroom stall, “but Satan does that thing you like…with his tongue.”
“Sure, I possess the ordinary monstrousness of a real-life person, the unknowable depths, the suppressed Hyde,” admits Dederer. “But I also have a more visible, quantifiable kind of monstrousness—that of the artist who completes her work. Finishers are always monsters.”
“Because the finishing is the part that makes the artist. The artist must be monster enough not just to start the work, but to complete it. And to commit all the little savageries that lie in between.”
Can you commit to those little (or large) savageries to get your words on the page, your art on the canvas, your creativity to its final form? Can you let the monster out of the cage?