One of my first newspaper bosses was a wonderful, jovial mess of a man who endured the frazzled annoyances of running a small-town news staff because it allowed him the luxury of composing editorials. Which happened to be things of joy and beauty, by the way.
He eventually brought me along to his next career stop because he needed a city editor. If you’ve never worked in a newsroom, allow me to translate. He needed someone to sweat the 10,000 details that come with running a news staff and dealing with the typically difficult people that news staffs encounter.
I always liked him better than he liked me, and I can’t say that I blame him. Having suffered through the bullshit that came with the old newspaper game, he’d come back to the business with a pretty clear sense of what he did and didn’t want to do. And what he didn’t want to do was multitask. Which meant that he needed to surround himself with intense, driven, multitasking bastards. It’s just that he didn’t necessarily enjoy listening to them all the time.
My old willingness to take on multiple impossible challenges all at once — just for the thrill of complete immersion — made me a pretty remarkable city editor at times. Then again, eventually the adrenaline addiction wears everyone down, and those who survive the experience emotionally learn to stop sacrificing themselves like tissue paper in a tyrant’s ashtray. That’s what my former boss learned, and I ultimately followed his lead.
I tell this story because it helps explain the twin channels that still course through the creative side of my personality.
One is fueled by pressure, excitement, ambition, fear, anger and adrenaline. It gets off on the thought that I can do so many things at once, dancing above the flames on a high wire, all while calmly balancing both hemispheres of my brain. This is me as the show-off, the adventurer, the lion tamer. And frankly, it’s a young man’s game.
The other channel wants to shut down everything non-essential and distracting, calming the surface of the pool so that not a ripple disturbs it. In this more passive side of my personality, creativity is less an act of will than of reception. A quiet mind is like a scrying bowl, a magical cauldron. Images rise to the surface. You hear the whispers of forests and the laughing of insects. It is the dark country on the frontiers of conscious and subconscious, the province of innocent wonder and fortunate wisdom.
It is water. Yin.
Like a lot of people, there’s more than one side to my personality, more than one side to my creative impulse. Part of me needs to work with my hands. Part of me wants to wander across imaginary fields. Sometimes I’m animated by ferocious passions and want to bash heads on the plains of Troy.
If there’s a trend to my creative evolution, it’s that the multitasking lion tamer is ceding room to the gently wandering fool. I am a slower writer these days. I don’t shift as swiftly or as smoothly from one aspect of my brain to the other. Yet when I do get down to work, I seem to be drawing from mysteriously deeper wells.
One might think that this is automatically a good thing. The truth is a bit more complex.
Writing is generally a terrible business. This means we all have to spend less time doing the thing we prefer and more time paying the bills. So while the advice to “Feed your Fool” sounds like great creative counsel, it’s often counterproductive. Whether we like it or not, few of us have the luxury of true monotasking, and it’s goddamn annoying to be struggling with the need to concentrate in the real world while the Moon licks your earlobe.
These days I feel quite a bit like John Tera — exhausted on the eve of battle, needing to focus to survive, all while fending off the increasingly seductive entreaties of Tanith Powdras, his dream wife. Why does the thing we love most become so insistent at the moment when we most need it to sit down, shut up, and wait its turn?
This is where discipline comes in. Because the more we open ourselves to the power of our dark, illuminated souls, the harder it is to hold those forces at bay. That’s why constraining the creative impulse becomes one of the great challenges that all artists face, because our inner Fool is never two steps removed from a meltdown tantrum.
Got it? Our desire to return to that innocent, unified mind at the wrong time is the impulse that fractures our mental state more than anything else we do.
My brotherly advice to anyone experiencing this conflict is patience, not repression. Like my former boss who probably didn’t enjoy everything that came with my multitasking intensity, he needed my discipline and structure to carve out some precious time to sit alone in his office and write (truly) brilliant editorials about Gilligan’s Island. Yes, from time to time he had to put his muses aside just to keep me going in my work, but the payoff he got from investing some time in my development and direction was more freedom to do what he wanted.
Creativity begins with restriction. If you wish to indulge your creative soul, give some appreciation to the hard-ass foreman within you who creates space and time for that blissful soul to abide.
Hence, the irony of creative disequilibrium: Just as we can be completely in the moment as the wandering Fool, so too can we be completely in the moment as the whirling Lion Tamer. It is not multitasking per se that fractures the mind, but the pull of the Moon that disrupts it.
I think it’s possible to be everything inside us. I just don’t think it’s possible to be all those things simultaneously.
Image credits: That beautiful Lion Tamer card is the work of a designer who goes by the handle Xochicalo. That Russian-inspired Fool card is from The World Tarot deck.