On creative loyalty.
What we owe to our work...and to the world.
In case you’re just joining in, here’s the intro spiel:
Between writing coaching and The Core Stories Collective, I’ve been thinking and talking about writing, like, all the time. For months. And I still have more to say. So that’s what this Substack is for now: writing about writing, for writers and “writers” and wishful writers-to-be.
You’ll get a newslessay (a newsletter-essay, yeah?) in your inbox every Thursday from here on out. (Except if I’m sick! Also, vacations! And this schedule is subject to change. We’re experimenting.) Like the one below, each one will include a brief reflection on the practice of writing, plus a writing-related quote and a prompt offering.
For now, reading remains free. At the end of April, I plan to switch to a paid subscription model. Free subscribers will get one monthly email, while those paying the $7/month rate will get one each week.
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1 | ON CREATIVE LOYALTY.
I’m taking Tomato on his ordinary morning walk around the neighborhood, and I’m beginning to write this essay in my head, scrambling the ideas together. It’s due, see? I promised you a new one every Thursday. I will keep my promise.
Mostly, I resist obligations and commitments, but not where writing is concerned. I feel loyal to writing, perhaps compulsively, which is not to say that I always act loyal to it. But when I abandon my creative work too regularly, I go entirely dysfunctional. I get resentful. I want to blame everything and everybody else for getting in the way of the thing I am here to do, don’t you get it?!?!?
So I’m tugging open-mouthed Tomato away from the pile of another dog’s left-behind poop, and I’m saying “uh-uh” and then “good boy” as I make him wait for the light to turn green at the crosswalk, and I’m trilling at him sweetly as he looks up with a tail wag, hoping for an extra treat he hasn’t really earned. I give it to him anyway. And all the while, my mind is molding sentences.
When we land back by the front door, I remember that it’s street cleaning day, so I have to move my car from its current spot down the block. I pop Tomato in the passenger’s seat, figuring it shouldn’t be too hard to find an open space on the opposite side of the road within a close radius. I’ll be home to my coffee and computer in five minutes.
I am wrong. We spend 20 minutes driving around in zigzags, Tomato just panting with confused contentment while I grow increasingly agitated. We keep passing the annoyingly cute little parking enforcement vehicle that’s zipping around, too, on the hunt for cars to ticket.
By the end, I’m ready to murder someone. I was supposed to be at my writing desk 20 minutes ago, but…parking tickets????? Am I really missing my precious creative time for something as absurdly stupid as this?????
And then, I realize what this essay is really supposed to be about.
In “Of Power and Time,” which might just be my favorite piece ever written about the specific challenges of an artist’s life, Mary Oliver posits that there are, within each of us, three selves.
There is the child self, whose innocent and hopeful whims — and related emotional outbreaks — remain internalized far past our early years. There is the social self, beholden to the appointments and obligations of adulthood (and specifically of patriarchal capitalism, I’d argue, though Oliver doesn’t name systemic forces directly).
And then, there is the third self: “neither a child, nor a servant of the hours,” but someone hungry for the extraordinary, for eternity, for “the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.” I think what she’s talking about is transcendence. This is the space that creative types crave: the transcendent realm where the third self rules.
My third self is loud. She is loud when the taxes are due, and I am shuffling through twelve-bajillion pages of forms for hours, only tightening the knot of confusion as I tug at it. She is loud when another unexpected Zoom meeting populates on my Google Cal. She is loud when the phone buzzes again and again from inside the desk drawer, reeling her back from wherever she’d escaped to. And she says essentially the same thing every time: I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to. Are you really asking about my plans for next Sunday right now? I was just — whoops, there goes that sentence, quickly disintegrating.
Even the fun things — the cocktails, the concert, the camping trip — these are all moments when I must oblige the social self, which means they are moments I am not in silent solitude, making my work. And the social self does deserve time and attention. She’s the one who gathers the ideas and the material. She’s the one who soothes my heart with the sorts of connections that make creative isolation tolerable. Without the social self, there is no story, and no need for it. She understands why all of it actually matters.
But she can also bully me. She does not belong in charge.
I was supposed to go see a movie with my partner and a few others on a recent weekday evening. The tickets had been bought. The commitment had been made. But the selves kept battling in my brain all afternoon, arguing over the calculus.
The money spent on popcorn and parking, the hours staring up at the noisy screen in the dark, the sleep to be lost to the late night out — these were all resources drawn away from writing. The third self said, You must cancel and stay home. She pleaded, really. About that essay you started — I’m in just the mood to brainstorm!
But the social self said, You must go. The cost of disappointing people is exorbitant, too. She also said, It’s just a movie, you weirdo. Normal people go to movies. What’s wrong with you!
The child self, well, she was probably the one pouting, wanting everything at once.
You know who won, right? I went to the movie. I explained in advance that I might leave halfway through, affording myself an escape route I didn’t actually use. I just sat there the whole time and tried to have fun like a normal person, damn it.
But I could have talked back to the social self that night. I could have said, You’re right. It is just a movie. And that’s why these people, your people, will understand when you stay home.
Also, I’m not a normal person. I don’t want to be a normal person. I’d rather be a shrimp.
Anyway, normal according to who? According to our aforementioned patriarchal capitalist system? Because, no thanks.
The thing is that culture breeds women and femmes to be easygoing and complacent and quiet about our needs, to care for everybody else at a cost to ourselves and our intuitive yearnings. We go to the grocery when the mustard runs out, even if we’d rather take a bath. We select and wrap the birthday gifts for all the relatives, we coddle the coworker whose toxic masculinity can’t handle our honest feelings, we make the potato salad with one hand while holding the baby with the other and pretending we haven’t had to pee for approximately 37 minutes.
Queer people, people of color, chronically ill and disabled and neurodivergent people all learn to oblige in order to survive. We practice passing, we code switch, because that’s how we stay safe and keep “normal people” comfortable.
We are trained to be obedient. This is different than being loyal. I can be loyal to a relationship — devoted to it, faithful, supportive — without swallowing my personal truths, pretending I’m up for something when I’m not, showing up exclusively out of fear of rejection. When I do all of that stuff, I’m just being obedient, and the third self will be the one to call bullshit. We need the third self, too.
Creative work, says Oliver, “requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity.” This isn’t to say that other things, other commitments that adulthood demands — street cleaning, tax day, whatever — won’t get in the way. It’s just to say that we must ultimately keep allowing ourselves to be pulled in the directions we’re pulled. Down. In. Away. Towards.
In other words: stop being so obedient to the world and disloyal to your work. You can be loyal to your work and still be loving, still be kind, even when you are not exactly “good.” Here: have a treat anyway. Good artist!
But yeah. Sorry. You do still have to move the car. Maybe, just maybe, there’s material there.
2 | A QUOTE TO KEEP CLOSE
“It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”
- Mary Oliver, “Of Power and Time” (from Upstream: Selected Essays)
3 | A PROMPT YOU CAN USE
Sit quietly for a moment, close your eyes, and turn towards the social self. (Gently! The social self tends to be touchy!) With kindness, ask the social self if they might mind leaving the room for an hour. Watch them go. (Use your imagination. You can do this.)
Now, invite the child self or the third self — take your pick — to pull up a chair across from you. As that self takes a seat, ask them questions: What do they ache for? What stories do they have to tell? What do they want to show you? Write it all down.