Elisabeth Eslami is the winner of the 2013 Ohio State University Prize in Short Fiction and the author of the short story collection Hibernate, as well as the acclaimed novel Bone Worship. She teaches at the MFA program at Manhattanville College, and here, she's written a knock-your-socks-off piece on what creativity is---and what it isn't. I'm so honored to host her. Thank you so much, Elizabeth!
No Room for Wings
1: Avoid wings and excuses.
Have no patience for winged things, or easy things, or that which requires a spell or a potion or circling three times fast, unless it’s you in your desk chair, where you’ve been sitting for four hours, and now you’re spinning only to resume the blood flow to your numb feet.
What I’m saying is that the muse is a distraction, she is the enemy, and if you see her, you’re best advised to gather her diaphanous gown and use it as a slingshot to send her back to whatever version of Asgard she came from. The muse is the one who tells you you’re not ready, that you need to sketch out your character’s family tree before you write the next chapter. The one who tells you to search the internet instead of writing because you haven’t done sufficient research to know how much socks cost in 1942.
You fell for that? You wasted a perfectly good writing day waiting for some figment of your imagination to tell you you don’t have the authority?
Here’s the thing about research. Whatever the time and place, it’s your version of that time and place. Put the furniture on the ceiling if that makes sense in your story. You’re worried about the Authenticity Police? When they show up, ask them how many books they’ve written. Then point to yours. Then point to you, the authority. The prime mover of worlds.
Given the choice between a cookie or the promise of a cookie, you’d choose the cookie. So why do you talk about the book you’re going to write instead of actually writing it? At your age, whatever your age, you know what’s behind you, the work you’ve produced, and you have a better sense of the shape of the time in front of you, which is called Books Not Yet Written.
You know what you see in front of you before you die, right? Books Not Yet Written.
What I’m saying to you is, do rather than pray.
2: What the muse also is not.
Every semester, by dint of teaching creative writing, apparently I kill somebody’s creativity. I’m always shocked when the student comes in to tell me this. It’s like that scene in the movies when the expert who’s going to save the world trips and shoots himself. It’s meant to shock.
What happens now? What do we do now that the creativity is dead?
Perhaps you’re wondering how this tragedy happened on my watch. Well, I’ll tell you. I asked what might happen if this student shifted the POV. If she worked to raise the stakes. “It was going well,” the student says now, postmortem, all big eyes and slumped shoulders and defeated sighs, “and then you made me do this.”
This means that creativity is a Pamplona bull, running free in the student’s loamy cranial pastures. Behold his might, the heat burning off his sweaty flanks. The miniature inverse world in the orb of his eye. He’s wild when you pursue him, and pursue him you must – another muse, with horns this time! – as he runs down those streets, a clatter of keratin hooves on cobblestones.
“You want me to do what?” the student asks. Revise? Make changes? To listen to you, Professor, is to hobble him, neuter him, pen him up. Magic is what comes from his unfettered flight through the streets.
But if this bull is your muse, you’re in bad shape. What I see is a dying animal, impaled and weak. What I see is you, breathless, chasing after something that will fail you. Unchecked, unchallenged inspiration is useless. If you’re a writer, nothing I throw at you can screw you up. You will rise to meet each challenge because you understand your gift is that strong.
If a muse is anything, it’s a guard dog. Put a chain around his neck. Now put the chain around you. Now chain you to the chair. If you move, the guard dog bites. At first, you’re petrified. Then you forget he’s there. When you don’t go anywhere for an hour, every single day, you’re a writer.
3: No one said this would be fun.
When you hand your story back to me and I ask, how did it go? I’m pretty much fucking with you. If you tell me it went well, I know you’re lying. If you tell me it was hard, I assume you mean you were able to breathe while you worked on it, and battle viruses – that your GI system was auto-piloting your digestion. Basically that all was status quo.
Because it’s supposed to be hard. Because if it’s not, you’re doing it wrong.
Sit back down, writer. This room is too small for wings.
All right. You want wings? I take it back. The muse can be a turkey vulture. A harpy eagle. Something with a beak designed for rending flesh, a head born red because most of the time, it’s rooting through a carcass, festooned with intestines, just, you know, surviving. I’m sorry, am I grossing you out? Good. You know who’s focused? The damn harpy eagle. Because killing, eating, surviving isn’t a game. Writing isn’t either.
4: Follow the blood.
At some point, you will find something under all those lousy first and second drafts: the good pages, the glittering scales of the monster that you know better than to touch. Not only don’t you cringe when you re-read these pages, you find your blood going to your chest supernova-style, geysering out to your fingertips. You could read these pages a hundred times, and whatever it is that makes them special will not diminish. You could have no faith in yourself, in what you can say and do on a page, but even you will read these pages and feel something weird worming above your chin. You’re smiling, and you’re doing it because you know it’s good. Let those pages sustain you. Pull them out when you need them, consult them for the promise of what this book could be, even if it’s not there yet. Put them down on the desk, and watch where your blood flows. That’s where you go next.
Conversely, when you get lazy, follow the blood. It’s those twin boiling points on your cheeks, the eternal threat of shame. Don’t embarrass yourself. You keep trying to skip past the crappy paragraphs, but you know better. Your shame will wait for you, in your cheeks, souring in your gut. Go back, eventually, and fix the damn thing(s).
You owe it to the better angels of your best pages.
5. Run from creativity.
Muses aren’t the only danger. Beware the inspiration peddlers, the role players, the “Find Your Voice” workshops. The fifty dollar a pop get-togethers where you sit around washing down your write-a-novel dreams with Styrofoam coffee and crullers and new friends. I’m not supposed to say that. I’m supposed to give you an ice breaker or a fun exercise or a sing along, but I’d be cheating you if I did.
What you need is to do the work. What you need, forever and always, is the work.
No one has the secret because there is no secret. Inspiration and creativity are pretty words we use to describe the work but otherwise are completely useless. If you let it, your mind will make a red herring out of those words. Your mind wants you to play Bejeweled Blitz and click on a picture of Justin Bieber pissing in a bucket. Override it. Take control.
If you only talk about the books in your head, you’re not a writer. Donuts and fun times with nice writing groups are great, but they don’t make you a writer either.
Did you do the work? Did you write today? Words, not excuses.
Work, not wings.