Is journalism killing my creativity?

I'm a successful journalist, but I get stuck on novels and creative nonfiction

Published April 1, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I am a writer. I love to write, and I make my living from writing, in journalism. I gave up a full-time newspaper job to freelance some years ago, which in many ways (not financially) was a great move. So I write and research and work hard every day, pretty much, and hundreds, thousands of words flow easily, which are then published in newspapers, magazines, online. It's great; it's so satisfying to make a well-crafted piece of work.

Yet I don't feel like a real writer. Both a screenplay based on a true story and a novel based on my own early life came grinding to a halt. Without being egotistical, I've been around long enough to know they are both excellent topics, great stories. But I just freeze up after three chapters or a couple of acts. I can't seem to keep going. The bio-novel made me incredibly anxious, bringing up memories I don't want to deal with but must to get them on the page. So I tried it as nonfiction, a pop-culture documentary, switching the focus somewhat and looking at events from a more journalistic angle. Nup.

An agent wanted to take me and the book on but laid down a lot of rules that just made me feel as if my story was being taken away from me and I would have to ask permission from other people to tell it.

Short stories aren't a problem, so I work on those occasionally, as they are a very good discipline and great practice for long-form work. But I want, and need, to do these big projects because I feel as if it's time to move on to the major stuff, and not only creatively, but to the big league, to the big money and big prestige projects. And yet ... something stops me. And I think it is fear of success. People commonly talk about fear of failure, but I really don't have that after a long career, work in theater and the arts, and prosaic jobs in banks and so on. Life is a great multicolored mosaic.

So what gives? Is it that these projects are more personal and I cannot hide behind the impartiality/authority of journalism? The screenplay really just needs knocking into shape, but then I would have to face producers ... they scare me. Agents scare me. Frankly, the whole business terrifies me, which is crazy considering some of the maniac editors I've faced down over the years, and some of the difficult people I've interviewed. (And natural childbirth! Twice!) And I know the business, at least from outside, because of my line of work. I have many contacts. My friends (mostly journalists) are puzzled by my lack of progress; they are polite, of course, but were expecting more from me.

So why don't I just do it, and then pick up the phone and organize a few meetings? Deep down, do I think I don't deserve to be successful? I was a mother at 18, then married, then a single mother of two, which puts you at a disadvantage money-wise, and you make a living but don't get rich from journalism. Am I habituated to just getting by financially? I feel as if I have all this potential, which should lead to work which should lead to reward. But there's the rub. Somewhere deep inside, I feel I'm not deserving, not good enough to take meetings and wear a big gown and pick up an award, or sign a fat contract and get years of lovely residuals. Why? How can I get past this? Often I just want to hide in my little apartment. Am I living a fantasy, and not appreciating that I am successful in a relatively modest way? Cary, can you help me?

Movin' on up

Dear Movin' on Up,

You ask, "Is it that these projects are more personal and I cannot hide behind the impartiality/authority of journalism?"

Generally when we set out to write for reasons other than journalism we encounter surprising emotions. We have not been trained to incorporate such things into our writing. We must find ways.

There is a lot in that question. The word "hide" is in that question. The word "authority" is in that question. So it's a deep question. To answer it would require that we take the time to consider what one might hide from. Presumably one would hide from the revelation of one's own being. The problem with hiding -- and hiding from -- one's own being is that one is shoving aside the very essential ingredient in creative writing, the source of mystery and surprise and perversity and what one might call "the authenticity of strangeness."

Here is another question I find interesting: "So why don't I just do it, and then pick up the phone and organize a few meetings?"

One answer I found a while back, through working with a cognitive therapist, was that the reason I wasn't doing certain things was that I had certain little voices in my head telling me things like, "It's hopeless" and "I can't write" and "I hate that guy." So cognitive therapy was useful in finding those voices and neutralizing them.

This is a convenient fact: The very thing that will help you write as you wish to is the thing you have been habitually shoving aside all these years in order to write successful, salable journalism. It is the source of artistic success: your peculiar, unique, strange and true vision. This vision you want to release is connected with you, but it is not your "self"; it is not your "true feelings" or your "deepest feelings" or anything like that. It is stranger and less under your control than that. It is something virtually unexpected and odd. It may be something disreputable and horrific. It may be something otherworldly; it may manifest itself as something that you fear is a cliché, such as an angel or some archetype.

If you explore such archetypes with care and attention, you will discover they are not clichés at all, but your journalistic colleagues may give you a hard time when they see what you are writing. You may have to go through a period where what you are writing does not make sense. If you feel you are moving toward something true and delicious, I suggest you keep going. I, personally, am right now moving toward some image that I cannot see clearly yet, and for that reason I am writing strange, clumsy lines that make no sense. But I am going to just keep going because I do know there is something beyond a succession of doors. I just need to keep opening and closing doors. In that sense, it is partly a numbers game.

I would put it like this: When we go from writing journalistically to writing creatively, we must be willing to reveal ourselves. That doesn't mean we actually do reveal ourselves. What we actually reveal is alien. It's the willingness to reveal "ourselves" that lets us get out of the way and allow this utterly alien vision to show itself.

On the other hand, journalistic writing is a discipline of control. As long as we are doing it well, we are controlling it; we are controlling what we show of ourselves. That is a good thing in journalism. But as long as we are doing that, we will never allow the truly remarkable, strange, alien and true thing to come out. We must allow it to surface.

In journalistic writing, one is constantly narrowing the range of what can be said because one must confine what one says to what can be quickly understood. The creative work, on the other hand, requires constant widening.

The two are at odds. One must widen to get it out, like widening the hips in childbirth.

Since you mention childbirth, this comes to mind: Maybe think of these pieces as children. Think of their life cycle as the life cycle of a child. Now you are just in the phase of getting them born. Maybe just concentrate on getting them born first. Then later you can groom them and so forth.

As a journalist you are also probably accustomed to using a certain voice that does not have too much of you in it, a voice that explains the surface of things. You may have to get used to writing scenes and letting personal emotions surface.

Now, as an example of what one pretty much cannot and should not do in journalism, I am going to do what I so often do in this column, which is to write at some length about my own experiences in the matter. Bear with me. I think this has some relevance, but like much of what is done in this column, it has an air of indulgence to it.

I have this guy in me that hates me. He lives in my skin like a disreputable roomer in a cheap boarding house. He doesn't want to see me succeed, but he doesn't want to kill me, either. He just wants to torment me.

For some reason he speaks in a Boston accent. He says things like, "Aw, he's a fuckin' loozuh. Look at that pathetic fuckin' loozuh. Look at him with his groceries on his bicycle. Look how weak he is. Look at his little scrawny chicken arms and chicken legs. That kid is a loozuh."

He's talking about me. When I write, he's in there going, "Jesus, you moron, you really gonna say that? You're such a loozuh."

So, the truth is that a while back, when I was having trouble with my writing, I knew I had voices in my head, but I did not understand the connection between those voices and my behavior. I thought they were separate, like some chorus I was able to ignore. But those voices were affecting me. When it was necessary, in the course of my freelance career, to make certain phone calls, these voices were coming up, and I was having anxiety. I was getting paralyzed. The key was to find the connection between paralysis and those voices. That was the genius of cognitive therapy, to not only show me the connection but then provide a set of activities I could do to neutralize those voices.

No problem. It works.

My practical approach to this problem has taken the following forms: I found that my writing practice was fraught with fear and tension, and so I started doing the Amherst Writers and Artists method. I found it hard to be motivated, so I read Stephen P. Kelner's book "Motivate Your Writing!" about motivational psychology for writers. I was afraid of agents and producers, so I put myself in the position of meeting some and talking with them. And I found that I could not finish things, and so recently I invented a thing I am calling "Finishing School," in which people like me come together to set goals and meet them.

I am still doing all these things. I keep at it. For my next Finishing School project, one month in length, I am going to outline the novel that I have been working on, off and on, for a ridiculously long time.

Not only did I not know that these voices were stopping me, I did not know what my true motivations were, so I could not tap into them. I thought my motivations were things like, "I want to be a good writer, I want to get my work done, etc." I took this little test in the Kelner book and found out my deeper motivations were not what I thought at all. They were more like, "I wanna hang out with my friends and not work, and I wanna be inside my own head and not have to take orders and not deal with anybody." I'm stating this imprecisely. The point is, this has allowed me to find motivation for my writing on the scale that is necessary to complete large projects, to persevere through confusing and emotionally challenging material.

It may feel strange to let go of certain journalistic habits -- of explaining, of moving briskly, of making sure you are understood. This thing of writing for art's sake involves writing things that may not be understood right away. It also involves artfully withholding things. It is sometimes an art of suggestion and sometimes of seeming whimsy and arbitrariness. You will need to let go of the habit of being always clear in order to let deeper, murkier things emerge. You can make them clear in the fullness of time. That is what long narrative is for.

It's hard enough to learn to write well in a journalistic style. To unlearn that may seem dumb. But you don't lose the ability to write good journalism. You just put it aside. You just do it differently.

Think of your other writing as a delicious holiday from sense. Go to it when the journalism exhausts you. Let it refresh you with its strangeness and freedom, its intimacy and depth.

By Cary Tennis

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