The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, December 08, 2008

You're worth the fight

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources"--Albert Einstein

Leading to the question: does true creativity exist? And if it does, what is it? There are no new component pieces, however, there are tons of combinations that have never been attempted, once idea grow to the compound level. One can transfer concepts from the natural world to the man-made world, and in doing so, "create" a "new" concept...or recognize patterns that no one else has seen before, or any number of other things. Most of Shakespeare's writing (if not all) was just re-working of older stories, other plays. It was his treatment of them that created artistry.


Almost finished with the "Big History" course. Made it all the way up to the present day. The most frightening fact in the entire thing (thus far): do you know how many times human beings have increased their energy usage since the Paleolithic? About 60,000. An individual human being uses about 40 times more energy than his Paleolithic ancestor, and there are more than 1000 times as many of us...disturbing.

But the entire human population shrank to about 10,000 individuals about forty thousand years ago. We almost became extinct. Personally, I think that this knowledge is lurking deep in our hindbrains, and helps propel us toward higher and higher populations, even though many of us fear a Malthusian crisis lurking just over the horizon, something that could crash our entire planetary civilization. As I've said, the one thing that MUST be solved, or we are dead meat, is the population density. I just don't believe in the "Big Man" hypothesis enough to think that we need every child we can get because one of 'em might just be a miracle worker. Don't buy it. No matter where I look, no matter how radical the invention or idea, it always seems to turn out that there were a dozen other people in other places working on the same thing...maybe just a few years behind.


A question from a reader:

This is the sort of question you can answer on your blog, if I can figure out how to ask it anyway. I'm trying to figure out how and when a writer makes their writing time a priority. You write for a living. If you stop writing you stop having an income to put food on your family's table. I am a housewife and the needs of my children and home are endless. There is never a sense that I am off the clock and free to do as I please now. So when I write I always feel a bit like I'm playing hooky from the important stuff. If I were getting paid for it I think that might make it feel more legitimate, but how am I going to get paid for it if I don't do it? And how much do I have to get paid for it to feel like it matters?

ᅠYesterday I was so proud of myself for telling a story in only 100 words and today I was feeling like a selfish child for the exact same thing. How does one get from writing as an indulgence to writing as a responsibility?"

There are a snake-ball of issues here. Let's start with the hard-core business issues. From a professional perspective, you start looking at writing as business, or a "responsibility" when you are ready to try being a pro. This means that you should have published several short stories, and probably at least one novel. Ideally, you have earned enough money that your editors have asked for more. have saved enough money to quit your job for a year, and try writing full time. At that point, your daily output is critical: you have to learn to turn off the "this ain't good enough" voice in your head, and nothing will do that like volume.

But there is a second issue here: why can't you just write for fun? And self-expression? And feel that that is legitimate? The fact is that the voice that says a man or woman has to give everything to his/her family (and I know just as many men as women who are killing themselves for their jobs and family--this stuff is cruelly intertwined) is just lying. You have no right to take time for recreation? Do you grasp the derivation of the word? Re-Create. To remake yourself. Heal yourself. Prepare yourself for another day of work. There is a damned good reason it makes sense to take a day a week off, and to have vacations, and down time every day. If you don't, you will kill yourself. Then where's your precious family?

The problem is that there are IMPORTANT things, and IMPERATIVE things. The imperative will always yammer at you to go, go, go. The important things are quieter, but essential to high, or sustained, performance. People do the "I don't have time to write/exercise/meditate/etc." at the same time that we have plenty of time to watch "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire."

Here's the truth: anything that relates to your personal growth will end up killing your ego. Said ego will use ANYTHING to slow you down/stop you--especially guilt over family and work. I've heard horrible stories of what people have done to themselves: morbid obesity, crippling ignorance, emotional dysfunction, complete lack of personal growth--all supposedly for "the children" or "my family" or "my wife/husband."

It's all crap. This is the reason I created the Five Minute Miracle. I wanted to find something that would contribute to personal growth that took so little time that NO ONE could claim they didn't have enough. If you say you don't have five minutes, you are lying. If your car goes 300 miles on a tank of gas, and you have to drive 500 miles, REGARDLESS of the rush, it is insanity to say "I don't have time to stop and get gas." But that is what people do.

So what must be done, continuously, is an evaluation of the beliefs we hold dear. In this case, the believe is "I owe 100% of my conscious time to my family." This will lead to fatigue, disease, emotional break-down, and dysfunction...while enabling the ol' Martyr Complex: (sniff: "I gave everything...") No. You didn't . You USED your family as an excuse not to clean out your own basement. It is infinitely easier to TELL someone to do 100 pushups than it is to do them yourself. "Giving" everything to your family...everything except your true theft, pure and simple.

You have passed the damage you inherited on to your children without processing. You have decided to let them carry your burden: believe me, one day you'll end up blaming them for your misery, and damaging your relationships with them as you try to guilt-trip them to keep them under your thumb. You will dump acid hate on your mate: "you kept me from living my life..." Bull. You were terrified to look at the stuff in the basement, to go for your dreams, to discover your real limits.

And you used your family. Don't do this. Give your children and family the greatest gift imaginable: the gift of freedom, and honestly. Show them an example of a mother and father who both loves them and loves THEMSELVES. Do you know how hard it is for some children to love themselves? Unless you handle that damage and SHOW them a happy, successful, artistic and loving life...unless you SHOW them that you can love your family without giving yourself completely away...where in the hell are they supposed to learn it?

No. The entire underlying emotional complex is venomous. You'll never "logic" your way out of it. But you can process the fear and guilt on a daily basis, just roll up your sleeves and get to work on it.

I promise you're worth the fight.


Anonymous said...

That's right. I struggle with the same thing. I have certain goals in training. I have a lot of family obligations. When I just stay focused, I can accomplish all I need to. The trick is to not get sidetracked all the time, like on the computer.

This is one of the main things I am working on now all the time. But the sidetrack things are always so interesting...

"For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do." Romans 7:15

Shawn Scarber Deggans said...

"An individual human being uses about 40 times more energy than his Paleolithic ancestor, and there are more than 1000 times as many of us...disturbing."

I'm not so worried about this because I see what we do with our energy consumption. Can you imagine Paleolithic humans saving a child from cancer? Nope, me either. Could we do more with less? Probably not.

I don't see it as disturbing. I see it as a necessary part of our evolution. What would be disturbing is if we threw it all away to return to a time when we couldn't fight back death.

As for over population--that's why we have space. Our future home.

Steve Perry said...

Shawn --

Space may indeed be our new home, but the question is will humans as a species survive long enough to conquer it?

At the moment, we are decades, maybe centuries, away from being able to travel any real distance outside Earth's gravity well. The physical and mental problems in a voyage of even six months to a year are legion. Zero-gravity does awful things to the human body; cosmic radiation that our magnetic field stops here will zap travelers in deep space. The mental aspect of isolation so far away from home is huge.

Someday -- if we survive long enough -- we can probably overcome these things, using some kind of artificial gravity, shielding, and psychological training, but if we burn out or blow ourselves up first ... ?

We have bested many diseases, and people live longer on average than ever, but we haven't found a way to stop the top-end clock -- somewhere around a hundred and twenty, people hayflick out, and given our population, that's a good thing. If everybody lived to be five hundred or so, we'd eat out resources that much faster without strict birth controls ...

Master Plan said...

Creativity is often conflated with artistry.

Are they the same?

To create doesn't mean "original" or "unique".

Thus true creativity certainly exists. Hand-crafted whatever you want, over and over again, it's been created, must be creativity.

The other issue of true artistry, pure creativity, originality, uniqueness is something else but there again I think it's much easier than it might seem.

It's easy to go all post-modern on..oh, anything, and deconstruct it to it's component bits and sources, but this doesn't really change the truth of it being what it is, and thus NOT any of those other things.

A new Ford Focus is not an old Ford Focus even if it owes it a great deal of design time and such, even the name. It's obviously a new and different thing, even if it's highly similar to many other things.

Which is then the third side of the question, is the created art "any good"?

Which I think is what most folks really mean when they ask about this idea of "true" creativity.

There we fall back to the idea of implementation. As mentioned re: Billy S. and his reworkings of prior material in to "his" plays.

That is also truly creative I think. If you took our host, Niven, Stephenson, King, and some other "name" authors\writers and gave them the identical plot, characters, setting, etc, even to an excruciatingly exacting degree and had them all crank out a book of exactly the same'd still have 3-4+ totally different books.

All "the same" and all "unique".

Even more so then, temporally, there are lots of white dudes, I'm one of them, but...that hardly implies we are all the same, even tho there are many of us who are all: White, male, in tech support, brown haired, etc, etc.

That is, in the way that one thing is never another thing, every thing, people, books, paintings, are all different, and thus must be unique and "creative" in their own way. Even highly derivative works of homage to include outright plagiarism (sections of).

Marty S said...

Steve: My wife has recently joined a women's writing group. They get together once a a week. Anyone who has something to contribute reads their work and the others critique it. My wife feels they are all much more experienced than her and she is looking for ways to improve herself. Can you recommend any sites or books that would give her tips on getting started.

Marty S said...

My take on creativity is that it doesn't have to be new, just new to you. Take my field mathematics. If a person comes up with an elegant proof of a theorem and some one else has already published that proof they have still been creative as long as they were unaware of the proof.

Anonymous said...

As for over population--that's why we have space. Our future home.

No thanks. The ocean would seem more user-friendly for a host of reasons starting with that's where we came from in the Beginning. There's quite a bit of it compared to land-mass. Food harvesting. And we're already here. Hate to make a choice now, but I even think I'd prefer the troglodyte life than space dweller. That zero-gravity aspect of space ain't no joke on the bones, friend. I don't think I'd wanna join the Galactic Cripple Crowd.

Althea said...

For the woman who wrote Steve the letter:

To my husband, I am "Hon." To my kids, I am "Mommy." To my disabled in-laws, I am "Caretaker." To me, I am still "Althea who expresses her creativity through writing and food." That is who I was when I was single with no dependents. The trick is to retain, remember, and nurture that woman while taking care of everyone else.

I am a stay-at-home mom who works part-time as a yoga teacher, and is homeschooling two speech-delayed sons. I chucked a corporate career for the life that I have now. The demands are indeed endless. There are no breaks, ever. That is why you have to create the breaks yourself. I am writing this while my sons are watching "Word World."

My first novel was written before I had children. Since then I have completed a non-fiction book. I did that when I was nursing my youngest. I figured, I'm awake, everyone else is asleep, so I'll do it now. It worked out.

With my current novel, I have struggled. My stress level has been through the roof the past few years. Yoga is a tremendous help. But I decided to get my health in order first before I tackled the novel again. I changed my diet, do super-quick breathing and chakra opening in the morning (with the kids watching).

A healthy mommy is best for everyone in the house. I've committed to 500 words per day. That takes 20 minutes, for me. I type at my yoga gigs, in doctor's offices when I'm shuttling my in-laws around, the library, or when my husband gets home, I run upstairs to get on my laptop.

It's not an indulgence. Writing is how I express myself to the world. If you have stories nagging at you, and the urge to write won't go away, that is your soul & intuition talking to you. Listen to it.

If you don't, you will resent your life. Resentment turns to anger. Anger turns self-destruction.

Neither your children, nor your marriage, nor your house will fall apart if you write 100 words a day. Your writing is as important as everything else. Don't fall into the trap of nurturing everyone else while forgetting yourself. As I turned my health around, trust me, everything else began to fall into place.

Join the MomWriters yahoogroup. The main site is
Also, TheWritingMother yahoogroup

Start a writers group at your local library. Start a blog. Create a community of other writers where you live. A mastermind group, if you will.

And not to get morbid, but I have lost five friends in the past four years. Two were murdered. Three died from cancer. All of them had creativity, love, and life left in them. No day is promised to us. So get busy!

Develop gratitude for your writing gifts. That is my advice to anyone. This is for Marty's wife too. Appreciate what you DO have. You have the ability to write. Not everyone can. My sister-in-law is fifty years old, and cannot write a complete sentence. My mother-in-law cannot string together three coherent sentences. I can. Rather than be fearful, which I'd been for many years, I appreciate my ability to create stories that people enjoy.

So now, in between writing my exceptionally long comment, I have changed a diaper, checked on the other son in the bathroom, put on “The Wiggles,” put another load in the laundry...and the kids are happy and the house is still standing. Then we'll dance, then be back to additon, subtraction, and colors.

It'll be okay. You can email me at if you'd like to talk.


Steven Barnes said...


LOVELY post. Just excellent. As for sites to help with writing, there are lots of 'em out there, but I haven't test-driven 'em. Suggestions?

Althea said...

Thanks Steve. I appreciate that.

I did an online fiction course called WriteLab in 1998. It was wonderful. The course taught me how to structure a novel.
It's now a book.
The website is old, but Jilla, the creator of the site, will respond back to you.

Writer's Digest is always good

Your free writing class was great and effective.

Hero with a thousand faces by Joseph Campbell and
The Hero with an African Face by Clyde W. Ford are fantastic.