Hurts So Good: Discomfort & the Creative Process

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Once, a friend who suffered from severe seasonal affective disorder described his autumn-induced depression as “seeing grey.” He was spot-on. Late last month,I spent two weeks living and working alongside dozens of other artists and writers in a compound in the tiny village of Johnson, Vermont. The first few days felt like living in a snowglobe as downy flakes fell onto our heavy wool sweaters and hats. Everyone was bright-eyed; excited to make new friends and talk about their work. Like the first days of summer camp, we bonded over meals in the dining hall, describing the projects we hoped to complete during our residencies. We shared a Thanksgiving dinner, laughed at brand new inside jokes, drank wine, attempted an ill-advised (and very awkward) dance party.

But then, the grey set in. Vermont winters are marked by an early sunset and bitter cold. Not only was I away from the Florida sun, but living in a glorified dorm room with little privacy. It was nothing like real life, and wasn’t meant to be, but the lack of my normal routine was jarring. I started sleeping late, missing meals, and wondering when the frenetic energy to create might appear. It was the picture of depression. I had imagined my time there to be spent hunched over a laptop by lamplight, revising my manuscript to perfection, and churning out tons of new work. I’d glommed on to a romanticized version of making art – an amateur mistake.

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A writing residency is an escape and a trap. These spaces exist as way to fully immerse oneself in the creative process, but it’s unfair to define that process according to what we think it should look like. Instead of valuing what was happening all around me, I became obsessed with what I wasn’t doing. But it felt impossible to arrive in an unfamiliar landscape with no semblance of my daily life and immediately get down to business. I didn’t even know what that business was.

I placed expectations on myself to create constantly, and wasn’t feasible.

I called my friend, the poet Tarfia Faizullah (check out her website), and said “I think I’m doing this wrong.” She comforted me, saying “Sometimes the artistic process means you’re taking a knee for a moment.” I’d forgotten the aspects of my process that don’t involve fingers on a keyboard: reading (and not just poetry), contemplation, and conversation. Just the night before, I’d spent hours with women working in other disciplines talking about everything from shoes to ancient shamanic practices. We bonded in the raw way that only these environments can provide: swiftly and without small talk. Wasn’t that fodder? Wasn’t it important?

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But I was uncomfortable. I missed my creature comforts and was devastatingly homesick. I was used to cooking my own meals, driving a car, waking up next to my boyfriend. My days at home are filled with menial tasks in order to create meaning and purpose. Without those things, I felt deep discomfort. There was too much silence, too much room in my brain to wander, and I was scared of where that wandering might lead. I once heard someone say “My mind is a rough neighborhood, and I don’t like to go there alone.” It’s that fear of examining the self that only leads to more fear. I was scared of what silence and solitude might reveal, how I could survive unmoored in my own thoughts.

Finally, I understood that I must distance myself as much as possible from my daily life in order to full engage that part of my brain, and that moving into those recesses would spark the work I’d so hoped to begin. With five days left in my residency, the literal and metaphorical veil of clouds lifted, and I returned to this passage by the writer Elizabeth Gilbert:

Your fear must not be allowed to make decisions about creativity, passion, inspiration, dreams. Your fear doesn’t understand these things, and so it makes the most boring possible decisions about them. Your fear mistakes creativity and inspiration for sabre-toothed tigers and wolf packs. They aren’t. Creativity and inspiration are the vehicles that will transport you to the person you most need to become.

By acknowledging my fear of failure (and wasting the residency) aloud, I was able to begin the work I’d imagined in the first place. Did it feel good? Totally! If you’re into exorcisms.People often ask if I only write when I’m inspired, but I hesitate to use that word. It feels too light, too ethereal. There’s no muse whispering my head full of language. It’s more like having my face shoved into concrete while a voice commands “Look!” I don’t smile when I sit down to write. In fact, it’s more of a groan, knowing that something is bubbling to the surface that must be examined, and that the examination will hurt. Moreover, a blank page represents the possibility of failure. Why not just quit while I’m ahead? There’s a part of me that believes I’ve already written my best work, and that starting new projects is futile. Despite all of this, I stare down a blinking cursor regularly, and return to that discomfort again and again.

 

Anna Claire Hodge holds both a MFA and PhD in creative writing. A former journalist, her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, newspapers, and magazines. Follow her on instagram at @to.thine.own.self.be.trill for fashion and peeks into her life, and check out www.annaclairehodge.com for more of her published work.

Written by monthly columnist Anna Claire Hodge. Follow her on Instagram @to.thine.own.self.be.trill

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