Letter 39: September 29, 2008
I'm still away at that family occasion I mentioned last time, but here's something I wrote in 2006.
Don't try this at home. I mean, it's certainly a way to multiply your advance 43 times - or just to get an advance, in fact, but - well, read on.
First-time novelist Michael Cox found what must be one of the most unusual cures for writer's block - steroids taken as part of treatment for cancer. "A steroid," he told the Scotsman newspaper, "gives you quite good things"¦ a great burst of mental energy.
Cox was prescribed the steroid to prevent the onset of blindness. Apparently, and unfortunately, he doesn't expect it to be successful at that, but instead it has cured him of a 30-year writer's block. He has produced the novel that he spent all those years wanting to write.
What's particularly interesting to me about his block is that like a number of other blocked creative writers - I think it's Coleridge who is the exemplar of this - Cox has been making his living as a professional non-fiction writer.
Changing the subject, now, Cox's story made me think about two other things: death and mortality.
Mortality is said to be one of the prime motivators of writing. What better way of surviving the grave than to leave part of your personality behind so that you can be known - not just known, but personally known hundreds or thousands of years later, like Shakespeare or Plato?
To existentialists, death is one of the most obvious proofs of life's meaninglessness, and therefore when we create something that has meaning, we defy death.
To put it another way, when we play and fantasize like children, we ignore our own death.
But that's our undated, distant, have-another-drink death. Imminent death is another matter. According to Jock Abra (in a packed little book The Motives for Creative Work>/i>) some artists have been driven to complete their life's work and others to create brilliantly powerful works at the last moment.
However, the ridiculously productive creativity researcher Dean Keith Simonton reviewed the "swan songs" of a number of composers and found they were popular and significant but lacking in originality. Perhaps a planned final work is a time to sum up and close things off rather than reaching for new ideas. Of course I am talking about established artists, not last-minute newcomers like Cox (who isn't dying anyway - he's doing a trilogy).
So where does that leave us? A crisis focuses the mind. If I told you you had three months to write your novel, and then your arms were going to fall off, would you start work? Maybe. But in such circumstances what kind of work would you be writing? Would it be the same novel you've been daydreaming about? Even while your body still works, your mind is changed. My message for today: at any moment you may change into someone who's incapable of writing the thing you were about to write. Or - like Michael Cox - you may be transformed into someone who isn't incapable of it.
Something you can try today, and not tomorrow: Carpe diem, writers. Seize the day.
David Jung McGarva
+1 (818) 707 1871
Write me: david at todayiwrite dot com
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