How do you get great? Obsession—Practice most all the time.
Pick any famous author, artist, musician, and they’ll all have obsession in common. And while we, the public, enjoy the fruits of their creative labor, those closest to these individuals were/are generally left wanting.
Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, “was an indifferent and often inattentive father and husband.”
Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, “worked 12 hours a day seven days a week, [and] his wife, Carol, tended to their daughters, Jodi and Anne.”
Adrienne Armstrong, wife of Billy Joe Armstrong of Greenday said of her husband after the release of the album American Idiot, “I think it challenged us to a new level, pushed us pretty far, the farthest I ever want to go.” The creatives above are all men. All married and all had/have children.
Now lets explore a few famous women.
The romance novelist Jane Austen never married. She was, in fact, ‘relieved in later life to have avoided the pitfalls of married life, not least the huge risks of childbirth, “all the business of Mothering.”’
Georgia O’Keeffe, the surrealist artist “wanted to have children but agreed with him [her husband, Alfred Steiglitz] that motherhood was incompatible with her art. She needed to focus all of her attention on her painting.”
Oprah Winfrey, the media mogul has never married, “the very idea of what it means to be a wife and the responsibility and sacrifice that carries — I wouldn’t have held that very well.” And she never had children. “If I had kids, my kids would hate me. They would have ended up on the equivalent of the “Oprah” show talking about me; because something [in my life] would have had to suffer and it would’ve probably been them.”
Ms. Winfrey had the guts to address the unvarnished, unspoken truth when she referred to the “responsibility and sacrifice,” in being a partner and parent. The investment of time, physical and psychic energy it takes to keep a marriage vital, and the even greater demands of being a conscientious parent, interferes, and often waylays the creative process.
Men have historically been the breadwinners in the family environment. And while this trend is slowly changing, the fact is women who seek personal excellence, especially in the arts, often have to choose between pursuing greatness and being, at least, an available partner and parent. Even today, men rarely have to make this choice. Regardless of this disparity, anyone, man or woman, obsessed with becoming great [at anything] should recognize the ‘sacrifice’ and costs to pursuing brilliance.
As a wife, mother, and a writer, my creative muse is constantly vying for prominence over the needs of my husband and especially my children. When my kids were babies, the creative process encountered fewer distractions. I could stay rapt in story, run dialog in my head while changing diapers or pushing them on the swing at the park. Small kids, small problems. Big kids, big issues. Now the parent to a tween and teen, my siren is often overwhelmed by the very real traumas and trials of adulthood my children face every day. To help them navigate these tumultuous times, I question, probe, even invade their space to stay connected, be there for them as a sounding board, a trusted confidant to lean on, to envelope them in a hug and hold them when they’re falling.
I chose to marry, to have kids. And while I willingly choose to be present, available for my family, forfeiting the relentless pursuit of my creativity is a battle I engage in daily. Much of my fiction focuses on this internal war, as in my novel Reverb, through James Whren’s obsession with his music, the cost to the lives he touched and the price he eventually paid absorbed in making it with his muse. My recent novel, Disconnected, explores the propaganda of the 1960s still being sold today, as Rachel struggles with the reality that we can’t ‘have it all,’ be everything we want to be, and still be there for our kids and family.
We glorify the brilliant author, the renown artist, successes in business, often secretly wish to be one of the famous. But to become great at anything means obsessively working at the job or craft, honing a skill set with relentless practice, which is the fundamental reason why genius is so rarely achieved. The price those who solely engage with their creative muse must pay is actualizing a full and balanced life.
I’m participating in one of the creepiest, weirdest, most…surreal experiences I’ve ever had.
Greg Tremblay is a voice actor currently producing the audiobook for my novel Reverb. We met through ACX, Amazon’s audiobook portal which hooks up authors with actors/producers for creating audiobooks to sell exclusively through Amazon and their channel partners. I hadn’t consider Reverb as an audiobook until several readers inquired if I had one available. I’d never heard an audiobook before. Every time I try to listen to one my mind drifts, generally first to whatever is in front of me, then it begins a-wanderin, drowning out all sound to the muse in my head. It does with TV too. Can’t help it. Not much holds my attention the way my imagination does.
I’m currently reviewing the chapters of Reverb that Greg has recorded to date. A practiced professional, he’s ‘playing’ all characters true to their voice and nature. It’s bizarre, at best, giving voice to the people I’d only heard in my head, but he’s particularly nailed James, the protagonist in the novel, with his cultivated British accent, the rich tenor of his voice. And it’s creeping me out. I get anxious, breathless, listening. The story, in parts “brutally raw,” is hard enough to read, yet alone hear, and the intensity of Greg’s deliver is so palpable it feels real.
James had been inside my head since I was a kid. Made him up when I felt afraid. Started when I was little, pretending to be a guy because men were supposed to be stronger than women, and when I felt scared I sought strength. I found it in James. He was brilliant, what I always wished to be, and insular, like most men seemed to me.
As I grew, James took on a life of his own, with a complex history. Through my teens I ran scenes in my head of how James would respond to mean family members, or bullying by contemporaries. Traveling around the world on my own in my 20s, I summoned James often. In the middle-east when I was stopped by soldiers, I cloaked James, stood tall, looked them in the eye, addressed them aggressively, like a man. In times of black loneliness, I’ve worn James, delved into writing, drawing, creating, as he did with music, shrouding himself from his own feelings with his career, as so many men do.
While I never lost the reality that James was fiction, someone I made up to serve me, there were times I felt his presence projecting from me so powerfully, the line between reality and fiction blurred. It scared me. Absorbing myself with myself every time I felt scared or lonely was not leading to the intimacy I wanted to share. By my 30s, it was clear I was distancing myself from the relationship I sought as a woman, when I took on James, and projected a man.
In an effort to distance myself from James, to shed him from me completely, I felt compelled to write about him. In giving him his own ground, perhaps I too could find some, learn to handle fear on my own.
It took a year to write the novel, and another year editing it to leached James out of me and onto the page. For quite some time after finishing the novel, I stopped thinking about him. He simply didn’t come to mind. Fear is still choking, often, but now I deal with it instead of cloaking James. He’s merely a character in a novel, after all.
Until now. Greg’s audio narration of Reverb has given James a voice. He’s been actualized, made real. And having James out there now, playing out his life story as I write this blog, is on the extreme end of surreal.
The most exquisitely bizarre bit—I can’t wait for the next chapter Greg delivers to hear James again, be with him, in the same room, the same space, camera pov, a fly on the wall—listening, seeing him in my mind’s eye. “Addicting read,” several reviewers have called Reverb. I get that now, and other reviews like, “frantically turning the pages to see what happens next.” I can’t wait to hear the rest of his story, like I didn’t write it. Someone else who knows James did.
I’m bemused where other authors get inspiration for their characters, and wonder if my feelings, this surreal experience is typical for other writers who’ve had their work actualized into voice or film. I’m grateful I’ve endeavored down this audiobook path. After I completed Reverb, I thought James and I were done. Through Greg’s interpretation, I’m now getting to know James outside of my head, as an individual. And while I’ll always feel affection for him, having helped me through all those moments of fear, our separation is now complete.