Tag Archive: creativity


Fall Funk

One of the biggest challenges I face as a man with Bipolar Disorder is that nearly every autumn, I fall into a funk. As the weather gets suddenly colder in the midwest, my mother also battles the same demons, and struggles to get out of bed, sleeping an average of fifteen to seventeen hours a day.

It’s ironic that she and I sleep so much during this time, because there’s even less daylight than usual, but I personally must take even better care of myself during the fall season, lest I start rapidly cycling between mania and despondency. I kind of give myself permission to sleep in on days when nothing is due at school, and I’ve learned to pace myself over time.

Having goals helps immensely. I’m finishing up my final two courses at Northwestern University, getting ready to start my thesis this winter and spring, something that can be done from home, but I’m scared. I’m both scared and excited that I’m drawing near the end of my coursework, getting ready to launch into both the work world and, hopefully, the publishing community. If I didn’t have school to propel me forward, I’d probably watch Judge Judy reruns all day. My father always jokes that when that happens to him, just push him out on the ice floe like the Inuit Eskimos.

The reality is that things are going well, and I’m nervous that the proverbial other shoe is going to drop any day now.

The challenge remains being gentle with myself during challenging times, and keep rising each morning as long as God grants me breath to greet the day.

Say it ain’t so

I don’t know about you, but there are times in my life when I wallow in fear rather than live in faith. I subscribe to the motto typified in the musical the Wiz where the character sings, “Don’t bring me no bad news.”

I’ve been throwing up a lot lately and it has me concerned. Something like seven out of the last ten days within fifteen minutes of waking up I have to race to the bathroom to visit the porcelain God, and dry heave what little water is left in my stomach from the night before. This morning I was driving in my car to get my morning java when I had to abruptly pull over to the side of the road, and now, after seven days of vomiting, my voice is kind of hoarse. So I screwed up my courage and made an appointment to see my doctor today.

I don’t drink alcohol, and I don’t smoke, so in reality it’s probably a case of end of school term nerves, but now I need to schedule an appointment with a Gastroenterologist to make sure my system is still in good working order.

My doctor put me on Protonix, a cousin of Prevacid, but stronger, apparently, and I’m hoping to stop the excess acid production in my stomach. I said, half jokingly, mock serious, “I hope I don’t have stomach cancer.”

“Don’t even say that,” the receptionist cautioned me. It’s almost as though if you give voice to your underlying fears, that somehow might make them come true. People don’t want to hear the “C” word, nor do they want to confront the uncomfortable reality that some people die before their time. A good friend of mine who used to be head librarian at my local library is bravely battling brain cancer, and the longterm prognosis is in months, not years, although she has survived over a year already.

I still want to write my first, second, and third full length novels, and I don’t feel ready to die, but I get nervous that the “best laid plans of mice and men” are going to go astray and that I’m going to be thwarted in my ambitions.

Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I deserve good things happening to me. I think we’re so conditioned to believe that life is supposed to be a struggle that we don’t want to admit that we have been blessed, truly blessed beyond belief. I have great people in my life, including a support group that includes my mother’s cousin who loves me dearly and whom I love in return equally, and many other friends and family members.

The truth is: life is good, and I’m looking forward to creating many more meaningful days before I head into the western sunset. Just keep me out of the doctor’s waiting rooms please.

My Irish Grandmother

I called my Irish grandmother, Ahme, perhaps an infant’s way of saying Mommy, but the appellation stuck, and everyone around me referred to her as my Ahme. When she died, I gave the eulogy, and although it’s impossible to summarize what another person’s life has truly meant to you, I did convey a few things: one, that there was no one quite like her, and two, that she had lived life on her terms. I quoted “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery when the author writes, “What you see here is but a shell. What is most important is invisible.”

If I remember correctly, my grandmother died on January 27, 1999, and after giving the eulogy, I went back to work grief-stricken, and had my first nervous breakdown on February 28th of that same year. I simply couldn’t extricate myself from my depression, and in sadness plunged myself back into work with a sort of manic frenzy that came to a head about a month after her death.

The Irish mourn their dead at wakes, and though I didn’t raise a glass of Jamison in her honor because I didn’t and still don’t drink, I nevertheless felt a cultural loss, a loss of my connection with my Irish heritage that has been difficult to replace. My grandmother, Julia Kelley Donoghue, was Irish to her core, and there’s something about the scrappy Irish personality and the twinkle in our eyes that can’t be translated to other ethnicities. Ahme took up painting in her later years, and became quite accomplished at drawing landscapes of the Wisconsin wilderness, the forest and lakes of my childhood vacations. She was left-handed originally, but, in accordance with the times, was forced to write right-handed, something she seemed to resent. I think she associated left-handedness with creativity, and my mother and I are both left-handed while my sister, though right-handed and far more logical than either of us, is also an artist. My sister majored in art, and minored in business, what has worked out to be a great combination for her.

I associate my Irish heritage with a kind of superstitious Catholicism, and I joke that being Catholic, in my household, is almost like being Jewish. It’s more than a religion; it’s a veritable ethnicity. Until I visited Ireland this past year, I had not experienced that deep-rooted connection to my heritage since my grandmother died. I cannot tell you how many uniquely Irish phrases and ways of looking at the world are lost to me since both my Ahme and Boppie died, but I know that I’m a better person for having known both my grandparents, and I love the Irish for the way they have fought against and overcome stigma as they emigrated in large numbers to America during the Potato Famine and afterwords. The Irish stick together, and I’m proud of all the adversity I’ve overcome in becoming the man that I am today.

Motion In The Ocean

One of the givens in life: if you find yourself standing in line at Starbucks, a long line snaking around the store, and you watch people inching forward, almost imperceptibly, you will, I guarantee, become annoyed if the person in front of you stands staring at his cell phone, checking messages, failing to shuffle towards the cashier, even if the forward movement is practically undetectable. In the grand scheme of things, you’re not saving any time, but getting someone else to conspire with your version of how things should work becomes somehow essential. The same holds true when you stand in an elevator and obsessively push the “close door” button. In reality, it’s doubtful whether you’re speeding up the elevator or getting to your destination any faster, yet it seems so important at the time that you do something, anything, to get where you’re going a minute quicker. Important to do something rather than nothing.

I must say, however, that when it comes to creativity, this “line shuffling” is critical to success. Many a day I don’t feel like sitting down to write, but when I do, even if all I’m doing is blogging, I feel more accomplished. I have done something to head in the direction I want to head. I have put pen to paper, and at least thought about the writing process. Writing, for me, is not a series of clearly directed forward steps. Rather, I shuffle along, in fits and spurts, and inevitably, those baby steps lead to revelations that have helped me as I work on my MFA in creative writing. Sometimes it takes twenty minutes of paper shuffling, looking over chapters I have written previously, before I am ready to sit down for “real writing.”

In this respect, I say, give yourself permission to shuffle impatiently in line, just try to do it without getting too irritated, trusting that it’s simply part of the creative process.

The Wrong Train

New Year’s has come and gone, and along with it, the requisite resolutions. In the midwest, the season comes at such a strange time–so much time spent in the dark. Even the few daylight hours can prove to be gloomy and depressing and a challenge for those trying to change their behaviors.

My local gym launches a contest in late January to see who can lose the most weight in a 90 day period, and I think it has taken a conscious effort on my part to stay goal focused, goal oriented. I have many ambitions, which include carving out more creative writing time as well as recommitting myself to a Weight Watchers weight loss program. Several years back I lost a grand total of 87 lbs, but lately some of those unwanted pounds have crept back, and I find it much, much harder to recapture that “Honeymoon” feeling when I was super motivated to lose weight in the first place. Over the course of the first three weeks back at Weight Watchers, I actually gained five lbs. I felt that I had gotten on the wrong train, a missed connection, perhaps, or the wrong line altogether. It was as though I were traveling through Europe, and instead of heading for Paris, my train was destined for some unnamed, underdeveloped Eastern European city.

I hadn’t bothered to track my food or eating patterns, one of the cores related to success. Trying to lose weight felt like a punishment rather than a worthy challenge, and I dreaded feeling accountable for my food choices.

Interestingly, launching in the wrong direction affected my creative work as well. I’ve been listening to an audiobook called “Making Ideas Happen,” geared toward increasing creative productivity, and one of the staples of the program is making yourself accountable through clearly defined action steps. Clearly defined goals and action steps has made it possible to achieve success in many arenas, including my original weight loss in addition to quitting drinking and applying for and being accepted into a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program at Northwestern University.

I’m also lucky that I’ve had weight loss success previously so that I know what is possible and doable, but losing weight does indeed demand a mental shift. Not only does “Making Ideas Happen” emphasize the importance of clearly defined action steps, it also purports that community and communal accountability helps creatives achieve their goals. In the arena of losing weight, having a community of people also looking to achieve weight loss success helps motivate me, knowing that each week I am accountable and check in with a core group of people, some of whom I can also call my friends.

Truly, you’ve got to believe it before you can achieve it, but at the same time it’s clear to me that I can start my day over at any time. So if in fact I started off my weight loss journey on the wrong foot, misread the train schedule, I can still be new again, and recommit myself to my goals. This past week I experienced a two pound weight loss. What a relief that was because I believe success builds on success. Now that I’ve got momentum in my favor, it’s much simpler to continue moving forward, embracing opportunities for success, rather than dwelling in negativity. There’s a saying I trust in: the more you focus on the problem, the bigger the problem becomes. The more you focus on the solution, the clearly the solution becomes.

Drunk Dreams

Friends have told me numerous times, “I definitely have another drunk in me; I’m just not sure I have another recovery in me.” I always thought, “My God, need you be so damn dramatic?” After my drunk dream last night, however, I begin to understand their sentiment.

I dreamt last night that I was about to go on a date with Adam Levine (okay, so I gotta dream big), and I got skunk drunk, knock-down-drag-me-out-of-the-bar drunk. I naturally humiliated myself and he wanted no part of me, leaving me ignominiously on the street corner. Though the details are somewhat hazy now, several hours later, kind of like the hazy morning-after memories of those now long gone days, I nevertheless remember the panic, the feeling that this is it, I can’t possibly fathom putting together two days sober, two weeks sober, a month sober. April 27th 2007 was the last day I fell down snookered, and April 28th this year I will celebrate six years sober, God and the universe willing. I begin to understand, dramatic or not, I may not have another recovery in me so I better make this one count.

I have thought about starting up another blog site, “One Drunk to Another,” and I personally feel it might make for a great book, but I really don’t want to jinx myself. I’ve got my life going on pretty good, heading creatively in the right direction as a writer who actually writes rather than dreaming about, but not working on the Great American Novel, and most days, I don’t have to think about alcohol or the effort involved in maintaining sobriety. It often seems deceptively easy. I laid a pretty good foundation, if I say so myself, and now weeks go by without me even thinking how great a Jack Daniels would be to take the edge off or make me more relaxed and interesting, or some other such nonsense.

Plus, I surround myself with positive people, and seem to naturally draw people with similar values into my life. Even those friends who drink don’t seem to have a problem having A GLASS of wine or A BEER, or if they order a second, often leave it half finished. This is unfathomable to me, and at times I find myself wondering, “How on earth can they simply leave a glass unfinished?” During my drunk bar days, I needed to have a glass in my hand at all times, and though now the glass holds a soda water with a lime, that behavior hasn’t dramatically changed. I still feel most comfortable holding that reassuring clear-bottomed glass in hand.

Strange enough, I have made numerous friends at Northwestern who speak in code, and let me know, “I had to quit drinking, or die.” Again, these friends seem to have a flair for the dramatic, but there is truth in the sentiment. I might not have physically died, though it was certainly a possibility driving home after far too many cocktails, but I most certainly would have died spiritually and emotionally.

I have dreams again, and the courage to pursue them. These dreams are far different than the drunken stupors I once found myself wallowing in, and it is a rare reminder to have a nightmare to reinforce that all the good in my life starts with me taking responsibility for my actions. Hugh Jackman, in talking about the painful life experience of having his mother abandon him when he was eight, refuses to wallow in life’s disappointments. He said, “There comes a certain point in life when you have to stop blaming other people for how you feel or the misfortunes in your life. You can’t go through life obsessing about what might have been.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Short and Sweet

Dating during these treacherous times, the electronic age of byte, can prove problematic, and make one give up all together, yet I for one remain an optimist at heart. Surely these must be that one special person for each of us, that lifelong companion we are meant to be with. Then again, I have a library friend Judy in her early 60’s who’s deliciously attractive, emminently desirable, and still certainly marriage material–no Sadie, sadie, married old lady for her. She’s never given up on the premise that she can find true love again. And I applaud the effort. I wish I shared one iota of her optimism. I ask that you pray for her to find her way.

We all have to have passions. Hers is horses, mine is tennis and word play. I’m a regular bard, if I do say so myself. Electronics, as most of us learn, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, is a double edged sword–you have to be careful not to impale yourself on it. It can serve you, but it can also suck you in, you need to know how to get it to work for you, also a tricky proposition.

Nevertheless. I remain an optimist. Just because I am like a loon, doesn’t mean you need to be too. Loons, just an FYI, mate for life, and never form another partnership on the same intimate level.

That’s enough profundity for this morning.

When Words Aren’t Enough

Words are great. As a writer, I deal in words. They are my currency, but even I acknowledge that words are not actions, nor can they take the place of actions. There’s a saying: you can’t think your way into right action, you have to act your way into right thinking.

That’s where habit comes into play, and habit, for a writer, is perhaps more important than sheer unadulterated talent. Genius, after all, remains unexpressed without individuals being diligent enough to express their thoughts on paper (as a writer), to put their art on a canvas (as a painter), to move creatively through space in cohesive patterns (as a dancer), or to express themselves in virtually any other art form that demands creativity. Madeleine L’Engle famously pointed out, “Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it.”

In the most recent Writer magazine, author Andre Dubus III, who wrote House of Sand and Fog, talked about best practices for writers. In his mind, being a creature of habit is a good thing. I had heard that Charles Dickens spent the first part of his day at his desk arranging and rearranging pencils at his desk, and this meticulous organizing freed up his mind to think creatively while occupied with a seemingly mundane task. It’s ironic how much we worry, as a society, about time-wasting activities. Perhaps we need to look how we can turn those activities to our advantage. Andre Dubus III himself approaches writing intuitively without an outline in his head, but he does have a plan of carefully constructed habits to bolster him and lead him creatively. He settles into what he calls his Cave, and begins each day by reading poetry, then listens to music while he transcribes what he has written from the previous day. He will allow himself to tinker, tweak and rewrite, but when he finishes, he sets aside his editing jobs, turns off the music, and, interestingly, puts on noise-canceling headphones. He always writes his new days pages in pencil, and is very specific about the kind of pencil and pencil sharpener he depends upon. Many writers are likewise superstitious and adhere to strict routine. The key, for writers, indeed for all creative persons, is to find a routine that works and honor it.

So many wannabe writers are undisciplined, myself among them. Because I’m in grad school, getting my MFA in creative writing, I’m forced to produce material, but there’s no guarantee, once I graduate, that I’ll continue to write unless I’ve put in place habits to serve me along the way.

Today, October 2nd, is my birthday, and as it is the beginning of fall, and the beginning of a new school year, I also consider it a good time to make my New Year’s Resolutions. Here they are: this year, I would like to lose 40 pounds and write between 100 and 150 new pages by the time I turn 45 next year. Pretty simple, and you have to bear in mind how far I’ve come already, but, as the Robert Frost poem says, I have “Miles to go before I sleep.”

The Idea Machine

Andy Rooney said it best: “I sit down at my typewriter, or my computer now, and I damn well decide to have an idea. That’s how you get an idea. They do not strike you very often in the middle of the night or when you’re doing something else. . .Ideas are amorphous, but you have to work on having one. The don’t just come out of the blue.”

Today I celebrate six years sober, six years since I last fell down drunk. It’s hard for me to take in that six years ago I traded Budweiser and gin and tonics for a life lived deliberately.

The reason this is relevant to Andy Rooney is that a little over six years ago I had this dream of becoming a writer, this vision of putting one word after another on paper until I had produced a novel, but nothing was getting done. I worried that if I quit drinking, I would no longer be creative, but the hard facts bore out a different truth. Many people out there can have one or two drinks, then sit down at their computer and write. That wasn’t my reality. I had big dreams, but nothing was being done to achieve them.

I’m not saying that everything has been easy since I quit drinking. I still haven’t finished that novel yet, but I have made significant progress. I have also started a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program at Northwestern University a little over a year ago. It’s been baby steps, but to me baby steps are better than no steps at all.

None of this would have been possible had I been drinking, of that I am sure. For that reason, if for no other, today is an important day for me. There’s that old saying: Do the footwork and leave the results up to God. And Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, says it a different way: “Leap, and the net will appear.” So now, even though it isn’t New Year’s Eve, I renew my commitment to my creativity, and renew my commitment to finishing my novel this coming year.

Wish me luck, if you’re so inclined.