Behind the Scenes, Video

Touching the Snake

I am lucky. I get paid to "be creative." At least, a good part of my job is centered on this kind of behavior. But that does not mean it is easy. Or fun. Or always successful.

I have been open with a good number of my friends about the creative blocks I have, so I am comfortable speaking a little about them here. First and foremost, since 2009, I have suffered from graphophobia - an intermittent but absolutely crippling fear of writing. When it has a grip on me, it is more than just a "writers block." It is a complete and total inability to write: handwriting, emails, anything.

As a result, I have had to totally reconstruct and restructure my creative life. It was in part my graphophobia that took me out of academia - if you can't write, it's hard to be a scholar. At the time, it was my dark secret. Nobody but my wife knew. But i would sit in my office, staring at a computer screen, day after day, in raw and growing terror. Why isn't this working?

A dark secret will gnaw at you, and it gnawed at me. One of the best steps I ever took was finally starting to admit the problem, to talk about it, to out myself. Being honest about the struggle and the times of sheer impossibility have helped me realize that I have a group of supporters and champions around me - and that has been fantastic for my creative life.

Working and struggling with the graphophobia has also opened new avenues of creativity for me. I came to realize that my inability to write did not cause the world to stop turning. If I could not complete a project on time, or at all, there were other doors that opened. That does not mean that folks were always cool about my blowing a deadline - but even when they were not, something good often came of the exchange.

The other piece of this was that giving myself the option of other outlets led to radio. At the time, the desperate rationale was "I can't write, but I can still talk." So I began interviewing colleagues, friends, and fellow scholars. This desperate gambit was a risk, and did not necessarily create a line of scholarship that would lead to tenure. But in its own way it led me to Chicago, and the work I am doing now.

So there are good days and there are bad days. Obviously, any day that I can sit and write a blog post like this is a very good day. They are happening with more regularity, I am happy to say. After five years in the woods, I am seeing more light through the trees. 

But there are still days - a lot of them - where there is an absolute wall. On those days, I am thankful that I am able to talk to my friends and my staff about what is going on, in addition to my family. The understanding and support of these incredible people sustain me.

Two thoughts, as I conclude:

First, a little insight from my friend Peter Ochs. He and I were catching up last fall in San Diego, and I told him some of the details about the graphophobia. Instead of acting like this was a problem, he praised the block, and (looking at the big picture - the move to Chicago, move into radio, etc) he remarked that the block seemed to be taking care of me so far.

So that's the first insight - a creative block is not necessarily a "problem" to be "solved." Instead, it might be an avenue to a different, but equally valid and worthwhile, way of being creative.

Second, is a quotation from Peter Gabriel that I read some years back. I don't have the exact wording, but the gist of it was, if someone put a gun to your head and said, "By a year from now you will create a great work of art, or I will kill you," his bet was that almost everyone could do it. They would find in themselves a way to create a great work of art.

What I love about this is not just the notion of everyone having the chops to do great work. I also love it because - if you know about Gabriel's track record - you know that he takes an insanely long time to create new work, often going four years or more between new releases.  

So, even though he's got this optimism about the creative process, he also is willing to give himself the space and the time for the brilliance to work itself out. 

Because it's not always easy for me to write like this, I hope you know how much I appreciate your taking the time to read my work. As always, thank you.