Working as a writer in New York City, immersed in the world of the arts, participating in contemporary cultural conversation -- the dream, right? And surely an endless source of inspiration.
At least, you would think that.
I would be the last person to call myself a writer, least of all a playwright, but in some twist of the fabric of the universe, I find myself writing my first play in three years. The list of problems I have encountered is currently at a higher word count than each horrifyingly bad draft.
The last time I set about writing a play, I was working a minimum wage waitressing job at a hotel in Dublin. A year out of college with no prospects or aspirations, I suppose you could say I didn’t take myself or my life very seriously.
The possibility of failure didn’t enter my headspace or manifest itself as a threat to my creativity. As far as I was concerned, I was already failing pretty hard, so what difference did it make if I wrote something bad?
Having no fear, no expectations and no real body of work against which to compare what I was working on, I went in blind and ended up with something I was openly proud of. I wrote it while working in that hotel -- fragments on the backs of menus and inventory dockets were stashed together in folders and pinned to my walls, and in between work shifts and late nights out, it somehow came together on time.
I was directing it myself with a cast I had worked with before for a festival that provided everything else I might need. In retrospect, it was the ideal scenario for a new writer with little experience.
Shortly after, I moved to New York and haven’t written so much as an idea for a play since. This summer, a friend approached me to write a new work, one that he will direct. There is no deadline, just a general aim to produce in 2017.
I’m out of practice, have to hand it over to someone else to direct, and have no exact date to be pushing towards. It’s already such a different environment to my last project.
I work every day and most evenings. I love my job. I definitely do not think I am failing anymore.
I have worked aggressively hard since I moved to New York and have finally managed to start forging a career -- but my personal writing and more specifically playwriting has somehow fallen through the cracks. I thought that picking it back up again would be easy -- like riding a bike -- and I couldn’t have been more wrong.
So I go out in the world to find inspiration. But what I’m encountering is some form of over-exposure.
My day job work has never been so deeply entrenched in theater -- I see at least two productions per week, read and write about theater and performance art every day. You would think that if you eventually absorb enough influence and inspiration that something will good will eventually come out.
However, by that theory, if you eat enough cake, something will eventually come out -- but it won’t be cake.
I often compare writing to vomiting. It feels like a state of nausea that can only be relieved by release. I usually get little warning, and it explodes onto the page in a giant mess that needs to be laboriously sifted through to identify meaning -- grossed out yet?
In desperate hope for inspiration, I bought a ticket to see Zadie Smith talk as part of The New Yorker festival. As one of my favorite fiction writers of all time, I was hoping she would give away some golden nugget of wisdom that would lure me out of my vomitless rut.
Instead, she mirrored my own attitude towards writing to the point of advising that a writer simply accept the anxiety and fear and nausea as part of the process. It won’t go away; you just get used to it.
Comforting as it may be that I’m not alone, and that someone as talented and successful as Zadie Smith feels similarly repulsed and compulsed to write, it’s a daunting future to pursue when the prospect of feeling excited rather than somehow internally forced to put pen to paper isn’t guaranteed.
Perhaps this is why they warn that meeting, or at least experiencing the presence of your heroes can be dangerous -- more often than not, you realize that they too are just a human who has to work hard. That there isn’t a magic remedy or secret trick to becoming great.
One thing she spoke of a lot is the growing sense of fear or distrust in your own writing as you get older. I’m only 26, and the volume of work that I write now by comparison to what I produced as a younger adult, a teenager and even as a child is shocking.
As a kid, I would stay up past my bedtime and even forego playing with friends to write. As a teenager I poured my heart into long, rambling and senseless adolescent romance stories, all of which were absolute abominations, but there were dozens of them.
As prolific as the first 20 years of my life were, the following are proving to be halted, stalled, stuck. Within the crawling mass of creators in New York City, there is hardly room to stretch your feelers, to catch a breath and decide which spark of inspiration can be nurtured and grown into an idea. And even if I could get that idea, how to then generate the story around it?
Do we need to actively seek out a muse in order to begin creating? Should we be on the constant lookout for inspiration, or just write what we already know?
When asked if she believed in luck as a driving force for good writing, Zadie said that yes, she does believe in luck, but that luck comes from being receptive.
Listening to the world around you, the people in it and outside of it, the voices that come from inside and outside of you. Living in New York, you have to fine-tune those receptors like a complex radio system to filter through the noise.
James Joyce walked around Dublin City, and there he said he found everything he needed to write Ulysses. They say the best way to know New York is to walk it.
Maybe the best way to be inspired is to stop actively seeking inspiration, and to instead be open to letting the unexpected in. To walk like a child, wide-eyed and amazed by the world around them that exceeds imagination.
New York, I love you, but can you be my muse?