Creative Monsters

“What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams.”

― Werner Herzog

Deep in the Cimmerian reaches of my heart lurks something fuliginous and lumbering. It is too primal for speech, driven instead by instinct and intuition. It is the source of all the myths that lie within me. It is the source of all that is raw and true and visceral in my creative work.

In Greek and Roman mythology, the Muses, nine daughters of Zeus, were the personification and inspiration of art, science, literature, music and all other creative outputs. This idea of the muse has propelled down through the generation, and indeed, anyone deeply engaged in a creative effort has at times felt as if he or she were guided by some external force, by some Muse.

I prefer to think of this force not as something external to me, but as something deeply, profoundly internal. Laura Mixon, in one of my favorite lectures at Viable Paradise, calls it the Beast. It’s the source of creativity, the source of passion, the source of creative instinct.

There are parts of our selves that are deeper than words, the places where our most intense, primal feelings come from. If you’ve ever felt yourself overwhelmed by feeling and scrambling to find words to explain yourself, you’ve felt this part of your being welling to the fore.

I think there’s scientific backing for this idea. We are linguistic animals. There are specific regions of our brain that process language. But we are not exclusively linguistic. Though we can use words to think, we don’t think words. We think thoughts. We feel feelings. Language is the tool in the brain that we use to translate that into the external world for communication.

People are mystified by creativity. We think that we forget how to be creative when we become adults. We describe children as creative. We look at artists and others around us and we are awed by their creativity, as if being creative is something that is anathema to us. It isn’t. Anyone can be creative. It’s merely a matter of allowing yourself to be open, to listening to that monster within.

I try to listen to the deepest part of myself when I’m trying to be creative. I try to tune out all self-criticism, shut down the rational mind, and just trust my deeper self. It’s remarkably freeing, and when I trust this part of myself, it provides.

You cannot force it and you cannot train it, but what you can do is give it the opportunity. If you sit down at the keyboard every day, if you open the notebook, take out the pen, shut out the rest of the world and just listen, just be open, the monster will show up and may even bring you a treasure.

Call it inspiration. Call it idea. Call it passion and fervor. Call it bullshit. Call it truth. Whatever, just listen.

I try to feed mine, drinking in other ideas, other thoughts, places, experiences. There’s an enormous mulch pile in my brain, and I’m constantly throwing new stuff on top: a photograph of a vintage door, a flash of anger during an argument, a line of dialogue, a moment of dizziness during a flight, the smell of a certain street in a certain city. It sinks down into the loamy mulch pile, decomposes, mixes, and becomes something new. That’s the source, the font of creativity where the monster lurks.

For me, this monster’s home is a shifting surreal landscape of impossible geologies. The monster is a feeling evoked by a song. It’s a shiver down the spine. It’s grittiness and wittiness and tearful goddamn cheering. It’s a philosophy brought home to roost. It’s unexpected. It’s haunted.

Trust it, embrace it, open yourself to it, but don’t look too closely. Attempts to dissect or analyze are likely to result in fruitlessness or worse.

“Monsters cannot be announced. One cannot say: ‘Here are our monsters,’ without immediately turning the monsters into pets.”

― Jacques Derrida


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