This winter was a tough one. It was cold, dark, and went on longer than any I can remember. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Talk to anyone in Pittsburgh (or much of the rest of the East Coast), and the general consensus is the same: this one was “a piece of work.”
During winter I tend to hibernate. It’s a defense mechanism, I guess, or maybe a simple response to a terrifically uninviting climate. I teach, of course, and do things with my friends and family, but I find it much harder to take the initiative to go out, to exercise, to explore and do the little things that often make life richer and more fulfilling. I also tend to see a drastic lull in my creative productivity.
Oddly enough, though, this winter, which basically lasted from late-October until mid-April, did find me productive, at least when it came to writing.
I’m not sure exactly why this was, although I think it may have been an almost intrinsic, almost subconscious need to shelter myself from the combined storm of seasonal affective disorder, personal illnesses, family illnesses, and other stressors that made life a mirror of the weather for the last six months or so. Everyone needs to have a creative outlet, be it cooking, painting, gardening, photography, carpentry, music, etc. The act of creating is celebratory: a celebration of potential, a celebration of self, a celebration of life. It is also purgation, an outlet in times of trouble. Simply put, it is often a way forward.
We see this again and again, played out through Time, both in the lives of the historically famous, and in the lives of those around us. Creativity protects us from the elements of the world that might break us, and in times of crisis, it is often the one thing we hold on to when all else threatens to fade.
There are many examples of this that come to mind. Perhaps the most moving involve people in extremis, who haven’t long to live. Take Warren Zevon, who, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, recorded what was perhaps his greatest album, The Wind. He gathered together a bunch of friends, went into a studio, and knocked out a masterpiece. His rendition of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which came from those sessions, is better than Dylan’s. Then, after those recording sessions ended and his condition worsened, he went back into the studio, all by himself this time, and recorded his own swan-song, “Keep Me in Your Heart.”
Then there’s Freddie Mercury, one of my heroes, who, in 1991, during the final stage of his struggle with AIDS, called the rest of Queen back into the recording studio, and told them to write whatever they could so he could sing it, leaving them with as much material to use after his death as possible. They did, and he did, and the very last song he ever recorded, “Mother Love,” contains one of the most awe-inspiring vocals I have ever heard. Music was his solace, music was his passion, and in the end, it seemed to bring out his remaining vigor and wellspring of strength the way nothing else in his life could. Only when he became too weak to record did he stop taking the medication that was prolonging his life, and allow himself to slip away.
This brings me to one of my favorite quotes by Kurt Vonnegut, who recognized the great power of the creative outlet better than most, and expressed it better than just about any. He wrote,
“I have been a writer since 1949. I am self-taught. I have no theories about writing that might help others. When I write, I simply become what I seemingly must become. I am six feet two and weigh nearly two hundred pounds and am badly coordinated, except when I swim. All that borrowed meat does the writing.
In the water I am beautiful.”
And then there’s this succinct quote, by my dear and deeply-missed friend Ray Bradbury: “You fail only if you stop writing.”
So, back to my lousy winter, which now hardly seems worth mentioning in the context of such examples. The long and the short is that it got me down, so I forced myself to write.
This is almost always a recipe for disaster, where my own work is concerned. I wait for the mood to strike, and then I’m off and running, first tentatively, then with a bit more self-assurance, and finally full-throttle. I can control the mood somewhat, make allowances for certain events and stick to a general writing schedule, but when too many cards are stacked against it, the writing either comes out wrong, or doesn’t come at all. Invariably, winter stacks too many cards against it, and this one in particular was worse.
But this time the writing came, and what there was, didn’t just work, but worked well. I returned to my novel, Darkness in the Valley, reacquainted myself with what I’d been doing with it the previous summer, and in three weeks finished the rough draft. After three years of work, the 450-page story finally found its way onto paper, from start to finish, the way it needed to.
Encouraged by this, I hired someone to convert all three of my previous books to Kindle, and made them available on Amazon. At the same time, I formatted The Uncanny Valley for a new paperback edition, which means that all my other works are now available in both Kindle and paperback format; I’m completely back in print, and on my own terms.
Following that, I launched two carefully-planned “free” promotions, first for the Kindle edition of On the Edge of Twilight, then for the Kindle edition of The Uncanny Valley. Both hit the Top Ten Bestseller list for free Kindle books during their promotions, and, along with Scaring the Crows, are still being downloaded briskly. Reader response, especially to The Uncanny Valley, has been wonderfully warm, which is deeply gratifying.
I’m now steadily revising Darkness in the Valley, and the way forward with it, though still challenging, finally seems clear. John York has finished half a dozen preliminary sketches to go along with it, so as I move on toward a final draft, he’ll be right there with me. I hope we will cross the finish line with it together, sometime early in 2015.
Now that spring is here, new challenges have already arisen; they never stop, and so it goes. People have unexpectedly disappointed me; places I thought would last forever have ended up in ruins; Time, which holds us all green and dying, has taken away more that I love. Yet the creative outlet remains a warm and steady candle when so much else grows shadowy and dim. Often, that’s when it seems to glow brightest, to give the most warmth, and to lead in the direction that I need to go.