Making It With Your Muse

How do you get good at anything? Practice.

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.

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Storytelling is Truth—Tweaked

Way before writing novels, I was a storyteller. As a little kid, before I could write, I used to come to breakfast and recount tales of going to Disneyland and other elaborate adventures I had during the night with my stuffed dog, Checkers. The purpose was less to entertain then to garner my mother’s attention, a precious commodity given mainly to my manic depressive brother and coiffed sister. The stories I chose to relay often had a point—either I was saved from some peril by a kind stranger because my parents weren’t there to help me, or I saved the day when I climbed the Matterhorn ride and fixed the car engine, rescuing the children stuck at the top to illustrate my prowess and kindness was beyond the pretty face of my sister’s benevolant facade.

Like most writers, I’ve written since learning to write, at first in diaries and journals, now articles, blogs, short stories and novels. Writing, for me, isn’t so much about entertaining, but more about getting my feelings and thoughts out of my head and in front of me to help me decipher them. Sometimes I have an idea or notion I’m convinced is true, then write it down and see the flaws in the logic. Writing about events, interactions, relationships, abstractions, helps me figure stuff out.

Beyond a writer, I’m still, and will always be a storyteller. I use tales as parables, to teach with, to communicate thoughts and feelings, not only to myself, but my kids, my husband, my students, basically most anyone I interact with. I’ve always related stories of things that happened, or, more precisely, elaborating on things that happened…OK, fabricating truths, to communicate, or to fit the lesson. Long time ago, I was told the best way to pull off a lie is to keep it as close to the truth as possible, just “tweak the truth.” It’s easy to pull of a realist tale this way, since most people aren’t paying that close attention anyway. We take what is said at face value, only questioning its validity if it’s too far out there. I find I need to tweak the unvarnished truth more often than not to be heard or believed, as truth is either too boring, or too bizarre—truly stranger than fiction so much of the time.

Fiction is the truth, tweaked. But so are blogs, memoirs, non-fiction, even ‘news’ articles—they are all simply the point of view of the writer/storyteller trying to communicate a feeling or message. Fox News is the Republican point of view, and will give you a completely different take on ObamaCare, then say, CNN. But Truth Tweaked, goes far beyond the news media. Even the most far out fiction like Twilight or Hunger Games resonates with us because they communicate real, true feelings that are familiar to us all. They exploit the truth of our hopes for a better world, a more just society.

Storytelling is the foundation of human communication. Before written languages, sharing stories was how we passed on our history, learned from our experiences, instilled morality into our communities and advanced our race. We all elaborate on our stories, writing them down or recounting an event in our day. We all tweak the truth to serve us, to present an image, teach our children, or convey our fears, desires, dreams.

For as long as I can remember, most every time I tell anyone I’m a writer, they respond with, ‘Oh, I write, too,’ or, ‘I’m going to write my novel one day.’ Used to bug me, spending most of my time and energy honing the craft of writing, I felt dissed by their self-proclaimed association while they invested little to no effort in my chosen, but challenging profession. And while most will never actualize their writing ambitions, the fact is, they too are telling a tale to communicate an image to me, to themselves, that their stories are valuable, their life meaningful, tweaking the truth to serve their needs. We are all storytellers indeed.