Whenever I go for a cigarette in my garden I never go all the way outside. I linger on the step that bridges the house and the garden and leave the back door ajar. Sometimes this is because it is dark and my bare feet shy away from the cold concrete slabs we have in place of grass. But often it is because going outside, all the way outside, reminds me how much I love it. Reminds my lungs what fresh air tastes like and my brain what the world beyond walls and screens looks like. On days when I have toiled away hours allowing my thoughts to twist around my mind and the phantom hands of procrastination to snake around my throat, the reminder that freedom is just a few steps and a decision away is overwhelming. I stick close to the house to keep my mind from roaming too far.
Whenever I start to write, I linger on the step just the same. Like a reluctant swimmer tentatively sticking one toe in the water, I allow myself to back out at any moment. I fear that I will turn my writing – my therapy, my prayer – into an obligation by putting pressure on myself to produce a complete piece of prose, a well-argued article, a fully-formed poem. I write down the thoughts that tumble free easily, and then abandon the ship before I have fully captured the image or riddled out the emotion. Before I have erected the sails, parted the waves, trained my eyes on the horizon. Seek out the horizon, I tell myself, with one foot on the shore.
My creative voice is something I both struggle to understand and struggle to let exist independently of my understanding of myself. I must learn to let go of the misguided notion that every piece of writing I release into the void of the world wide web has to be wholly representative of my full range of personal beliefs and creativity. A long time ago, I read a quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky that, taken out of its original context (as dialogue in The Brothers Karamazov), stuck with me: ‘I have so much to tell you that I am afraid I shall tell you nothing.’ This is true of the way I feel about my creative voice in the broadest sense. I want my stories to do justice to my memories. I want to find the words to articulate thoughts and ideas I am still trying to catch. I want to write to rival my heroes. I carefully store away every notebook I fill and secretly fear that I am merely a hoarder of pages and pages of nothing. I have so much to say that I am afraid of saying nothing. Producing work which is meaningless would, in many ways, be infinitely worse to me than simply not trying to produce anything at all. This is fallacy born of an over-exalted notion of my imagined artist-alter-ego.
Often I think, too, of the Nietzsche quote, ‘that for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts.’ I panic that every failed attempt to write of an experience or emotion sucks just a little more life out of it. Sometimes I cling to fragments of past writings like a life belt on the raging ocean of my sea-deep self. I read them in an attempt to reclaim whatever inspiration or motivation I once had. This is not so different, really, from clinging to a volume of TS Eliot poetry or tracing the lines of a Tom Waits song onto a page, willing their emotion and life to open the door to my own creativity. You can do better / you could never be so great.
I have learnt to recognise the ways in which I intentionally self-destruct, be it smoking even when it makes me feel a little sick, or refusing to write even when I need the release. I know that I will compare myself to anything, even my past selves, and find myself lacking. I have learnt that I must not rake through an old piece of prose or poetry looking for content I can recycle, but use it like a soothing balm for the self-inflicted injury of you -can’t – you – can’t – you – can’t. To reassure myself that my creativity does not have a word count or an expiration date and that I wrote something half-decent three years ago and I wrote something half-decent yesterday. Neither has any bearing on my ability to create something today. To create tomorrow. To continue to make art, both good and mediocre, until my dying day.
The most important lesson I have learnt, am still learning, is to get over myself. Or, more specifically, to get over the image of the artist I have created for myself to aspire to. To get over the idea that producing anything less than incredible, formidable, critically-acclaimed art means that I am somehow failing my future self. I am learning what it takes to consistently create. I know the hours of writing and editing and erasing are nothing compared to the emotional cost of relentlessly mining the darkest places inside you because they are home to the deepest pools of inspiration. I know I can withstand the self-strangulation I subject myself to in fits of panic and doubt because I know what it takes to create. I know that creation is what replaces mediocrity in the space between joy and despair when you chose to dedicate your life to art.
Sometimes we want to believe that we can chose to not play the game. That we can set down our instruments, our brushes, and our pens, to be freed from the pain at the expense of the gain. But we know the dice was rolled long ago. We have bitten the peach and glimpsed the horizon and we know that we can never again be content with the stability of life on the land. I do not want to drown in screens and mediocrity. But give me those tempestuous oceans. Give me those snarling waves and wretched currents. Give me wailing shorelines and capricious tides and I will throw myself into the water a thousand times over just to get seconds or centimetres closer to that elusive horizon.
I will no longer let myself sit on the steps between inside and out. I will push myself deeper into those dark spaces and continue to swim against the current that is my own masochistic addiction to procrastination and escapism. Stop fearing, I will remind myself, that your creativity is a well that will one day run dry without warning. Stop fearing that, for every mediocre piece of writing you produce, the lifeblood of your yet-to-be-started magnum opus gets a little thinner, shines a little less brightly. Stop choking your creativity in notions of quantifiable worth and worthiness and simply allow yourself to bleed onto your page or stage. Creativity is an end in itself. And your creativity is not a caged animal living within you waiting to burst out at the perfect moment in one perfectly executed leap. It is a river you must allow to flow. A current you must fight. An ocean you must allow yourself to sail.