“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
The wisest man on earth said that.
Others have gotten more specific: There are no new stories, just the same five or six or ten told in an infinite variety of ways. If you read often and closely enough, you start to believe it’s true.
Assuming that no idea or story arc is original, it’s still possible to do genuinely creative work. It’s possible to think deeply about things and come to authentic conclusions. Of course, there’s some sense in which we all retread worn paths. Still, you are the X factor in the stories you write, the life you live. No one can be you.
Why, then, do so many people seem to produce thinly disguised copies of other people’s work or parrot an “expert’s” talking points instead of doing their own work? There’s a point at which derivation becomes hollow. Most of us can sense when someone has phoned in a tired plot or spouted a canned answer.
I wonder how much shallow thinking, predictable plotting, and/or unexamined living is due to the kind of information we take in on a daily basis. How much do we consume other people’s opinions and re-think them as if we’d made them up? How much to we allow ourselves to go on autopilot, listening to the news or radio or scrolling social media to save our brain the trouble of wrestling through conundrums?
How often do we artists see some commercial trend and think, I guess I need to produce that if everyone else is?
My suspicion is that it’s…often. I’m no exception. I find myself binging, binging, binging on words that don’t enlighten or challenge me–ideas that don’t contribute to the quality of my thought life. If I’m honest, I do this because I’m lazy. I’m addicted to expedience.
It takes tremendous energy to think, and life tires me out.
But something deeper whispers, There’s a way to do this hard work. I might not like the way, but I’m going to find it.
I’m not a tranquil, easygoing person. Even as a kid I planned for imaginary contingencies. I worried and wondered. I made lists.
I’m convinced this is a bit of a personality defect since I had a wonderful childhood.
It’s still true of me as a 41-year-old wife, mom, and artist. I have a good life, and I’m still a bit of a hurricane on the inside. My emotions are easy to stir up. Hard to quell.
I love this time of year. I’m a Christian, and this season reminds me why I have hope–both in this life and in the one to come. But Christmas stresses me out, too. It ruins my routines. It sinks me under the weight of its happy expectations. It adds items to my to do list and upends my fragile status quo.
If I’m honest, I miss the way we celebrated Christmas when we lived in India. Which is to say, we did Advent readings, watched good movies, lit candles, and opened gifts on Christmas morning.
There were no concerts, no expectations, no parties, no travel, no Christmas cards, no feasts, no detailed gift lists, no endless choices, no school performances, no commercials reminding us that we hadn’t bought enough.
Our Christmas dinners in India were spaghetti and mutton meat balls because that was the fanciest thing we could find in our little hill station market.
I’m in America, now, not India. Sure, there’s plenty to love about an American Christmas. But peaceful, it ain’t. Not unless I plan for it.
So I’m mostly cutting out social media this month. I’m checking my email once a day. I’m listening to Christmas music I actually enjoy. I’m drinking coffee, slowly, in the wee hours of the morning. I’m putting on my makeup in silence so I can think. I’m reading my Bible before I reach for my phone. I’m working on tricky edits of my manuscript in the morning instead of pushing them off to the afternoon when I’m exhausted. I’m going to bed early. I’m reading novels instead of watching Netflix.
I want to thrive this holiday season, not just survive. And, for me, planning for peace is the only way to go.
Still over here thinking about vulnerability that helps connect us with others.
And now, after reading this article, I’m wondering about fake vulnerability–the kind that looks brave but is actually crafted and careful like those ridiculous #nofilter Instagram pics people love to post (No, really, she woke up like this).
The first step to creating genuine connection with others is to be honest about where you’re coming from. Story: I just joined Twitter, and I wrestled with what to put in my bio. I didn’t want to say too much (or, Lord help me, use emojis), but I knew I needed to let people know a few true things. That way, if they aren’t interested in what I’m writing/thinking about, they can move on. No harm, no foul.
So I said I’m a Christian because that’s the realest thing about me. I’m aware putting that out there may cause some people to turn away immediately. I’m aware they might assume I’m writing “Christian fiction” when I’m actually trying to do something different.
I imagine most people want you to be upfront with them, though. They don’t want to feel like you’ve Trojan horse-d your viewpoint into their consciousness. If they don’t agree with what you’re saying, fine and good. At least you’ve been honest.
The difference between real and fake vulnerability is…the truth. If someone sticks around after they know what you’re really about, guess what? You’re in a better position to say the things you really mean–and, in the end, maybe even help someone.
Some of the pros of pursuing a creative field in my forties are that
I feel calmer, braver, and less neurotic than I did when I was younger.
I’ve mostly raised my kids, so I don’t have Mom Guilt when I take time away from them to get better at my craft.
I’m more disciplined with my time because, honestly, there are fewer things in my life that feel like interesting distractions (with the possible exception of podcasts on unsolved murders).
But there are cons, too.
I feel rushed, like I’m always on the verge of running out of time. It’s hard not to compare myself to twenty or thirty-somethings who are doing all the things I’m doing, but sooner, so the odds of success seem ever in their favor.
I get mentally exhausted sooner than I did in my twenties, and I wonder if my ideas are “safer” because of this mellow(er) decade.
I’m physically tired.
In order to keep going, I have to remind myself that
I was meant to find this path at this time (I believe God directs our lives more than we realize).
My ideas are probably less wild but truer than if I’d written them down earlier. This is because I’ve lived more. I’ve sat in the shadows with people. I’ve traveled the world. This has to count for something.
My life is going to pass whether I pursue writing or not. Since there’s no slowing down the passage of time, I might as well spend some of it doing what I love.
In two days, I’ll attend a writer’s conference at a swanky hotel. My carry-on will contain professional clothes (okay, a few Stitch Fix mix ‘n matches). I will wear poppy-colored lipstick and have too many business cards in my purse. I will try to look bright-eyed and confident, but also cool and not too eager because gross.
I will try not to think about myself and my writing too much, try to remember that this kind of event is about reaching out to others with no strings attached. Let good things just happen, man. Think about how you can be helpful. Be the first to go in for a handshake.
The whir in the back of my head will be: I wonder what’s going to happen. What VIP will I meet that could change my future plans? Do I belong here? I don’t. No, wait, I do. But not really. But, yes. Yes, I do. I will lick my front teeth to make sure none of the poppy-colored lipstick is smeared on them. I will open my eyes extra-wide (but not crazy wide!) behind my glasses when people smile at me because I’m 40, and my eyelids are starting to sag even when I’m not tired. Even when I’m nervous and on sensory overload.
And then I will remember how fortunate I am to be here. I will think about the beggar kids that lived outside my apartment in India for three years, those pink warts on their toast-colored hands, the broken-off front teeth. I will think about the level of privilege this conference represents, and how I did nothing to deserve it.
And that will set me right for a few minutes out of every hour until I reach my hotel room at the end of the day. There I will let my face sag. I will switch on the television to see what cable looks like after all these years. Then I’ll make decaf in the nasty little pot on the desk. I will text my husband and ask him about our three teenagers–the ones I miss when they’ve been out of my sight for more than eight hours.