Many years ago I felt like my efforts to create were going directly into the void. I struggled to find my voice and my niche in the creative sphere. I realized then that while my work is an amalgamate of all the things I’ve encountered, experienced, researched, discovered or been exposed to—so too, is nearly every artist’s body of work.
Hence the phrase on my business card, “Inhale life, exhale story”.
I decided then, that whenever I became conscious of an influence in my writing, storytelling, sculpting, or cooking…I would make a good faith effort to reach out and say thank you to the creative inspiration that lent me that particular bit of tool/nudge/craft/energy/wisdom.
I wasn’t sure at first how it would work. I sent emails, notes, cards, and thank you treats to chefs, songwriters, performers, directors, and most importantly—my teachers and mentors. I knew most of the letters would be skipped, or dumped in a fan pile bin. Some would be read and likely tossed. Others would be wrongly addressed as it’s difficult to find a way to deliver what is essentially fan mail to the proper recipient.
Even knowing that, it seemed really important to let other artists and creatives know that they are not producing into a void. The void can be a lonely uninspiring place. At the very least, I hoped a thank you note would get through to any one of them if they were in a space to really need it at the time, because I know what that feels like.
When I realize I’ve been influenced or inspired by a creative who has passed away; J.R.R. Tolkien, Marilyn Monroe, or Audrey Hepburn—I try to add a piece of gratitude to the Universe for their contribution, and quietly acknowledge they had a part to play in my humble creative hodgepodge.
Whatever collective amniotic fluid I drift in as an artist, I consciously know nothing is original. Still, there are days I sit at my computer and bang away believing I’m a regurgitative hack. I worry everything I’m writing is crap, and I have the rejection pile to prove it. Some days are better than others with the internal battle of originality versus circular creation.
Then a funny thing happens. Usually at my lowest point, a reader walks into the restaurant where I work, and they want to talk about the books while I serve them beer. It’s weird. I don’t look anything like my author photo. I still work a part time job to pay bills, yet somehow they recognize me right away.
At first they’re confused about why they’re seeing me out of context. Then, they change and become super talkative, and encouraging.
Perspective is not letting positive or negative feedback become an ego challenge or boost. It is only feedback, and must be calculated as any data would be tallied.
But I’m not ashamed to say that after these encounters I feel much less like I’m writing into a void. The story went somewhere, it found a home. Once it’s out of my hands it doesn’t belong to me anymore—but knowing it landed in the reading pile of someone who took it in makes me feel somehow like the world is a conceivable size…an understandable circumference. I am a small, nobody artist---who touched someone somewhere I’ve never actually been, and they touched me in return.
Connection is the antithesis of the void.
Usually, this encourages me to double my efforts to say thank you, to express my gratitude for my experiences and influences. So, I rush home and write a pile of thank you notes, because gratitude is as contagious as creativity.
And this world could certainly use more of both.
I stopped in to my old stomping grounds in NW where much of Murder of Crows takes place. It felt strange to be sitting down to crepes at Café Vivace almost fifteen years after the conception of the novel. Back then (2004) when I was writing the first incarnations of the drafts, I’d write at Café Vivace, or McMenamins, or Tara Thai, or any of the businesses along 21st, 22nd, or 23rd that would let me linger with my laptop at a corner table out of the way. When one shop closed or got busy and needed me to free up a table, I’d pack up, and walk to the next open spot. I sat at the park, and on sidewalk benches, and spent countless hours walking up and down the alphabet blocks writing scenes in my head. I did the loop up and down NW 23rd from Burnside to Thurman hundreds of times over the course of several years.
My trip to town after being gone for four years was both nostalgic and heartbreaking. The bistro where I’d fictionally placed The Glade Café is gone; torn down to be replaced by a big, square, gray and lifeless building. Also, New Old Lompoc has moved, and with them my favorite bowl of mac and cheese in the city. Even Uptown Billiards is closing its doors. Much of the quaint, patchwork charm of twenty-third is now branded and uniformly sterilized by corporate creeping in. Alas. They call it “progress”.
The ultimate irony is that my last corporate job, the one on the Oregon Coast that I quit a couple of years ago, recently purchased a block of building one street over from Café Vivace and gave the whole corporate headquarter make-over to the site. So as I was noticing the corporate creepage onto a neighborhood that once supported art, creativity, and community that was once very much about discovery and collaboration—I could almost see the toxic company I walked away from and their new headquarters from my old writing table.
Two years ago I gave a speech at the book launch of Sinnet of Dragons about the standardization of corporatized thoughts and behavior patterns that suffocate creativity and innovation. My series about the Muses reborn into this world to save us from the new Dark Age is a not-so-sly commentary about corporate creepage and sterilized imaginations. It’s not lost on me that, company X, that I walked away from in order to keep writing this series about the dawn of a new creative age—now owns the block next to my original writing spot-where the series was first born over a decade ago. The irony is as thick as their cheese.
Just like them to be riding a wave that crested a decade ago, trying desperately to soak up the creative juices of an area that once flourished with arts, collaboration and creativity—but the artists, and much of the originality and fresh voice of those businesses have been driven out by the property price hikes caused by corporations eager to cash in on the richness and novelty that once inhabited the scene.
Expensive condos, development and blanched business models now own a large patch of the NW trendy-third quarter. Codos are so expensive that even the middle-salary workers from the corporations at the heart of this gentrification wave can’t afford to live in them.
There are still some spots, though, such as Café Vivace where, despite the property price hikes and statistical failure rates of cafes and restaurants—they have survived (probably because they have had to hike their prices to keep from being driven out as well). They were my first Nanowrimo outing, and my go-to spot for years when I was on the NW side of town. During that Nanowrimo the seating capacity for the write-in was to host 75 writers—but 200 showed up. There were people sitting on the floor of the café, and in the original clawfoot bathtub upstairs (before it was made into a salon business). We were crammed into tiny spaces, sharing the steps and standing along the walls as we all wrote furiously on our novels. The baristas could barely keep up with the orders.
Coffee flowed like imagination. Friends were made, stories collaborated on, and writing problems solved by total strangers. And when the clock ticked to close—two hundred writers packed up their gear and dissolved back into the city. If you looked closely, you could almost see two hundred tracer lights of pulsing imagination weaving back through the night to feed the population with tales of escapism, romance, fantasy, theological essay, poetry, erotica, and all manner of nourishing literature.
How strange it is that cities, populations, whole nations forget the absolute necessity of creative arts and collaboration as the foundational nutrients of innovation for entire civilizations. These nutrient rich clusters of originality and output drive spiritual evolution, human connectivity, and yes, even form the basis of modern commerce. We would not have a financial infrastructure without innovation and creativity.
Fifteen years later the books I wrote while in that magical window of shared creative and kinetic energy are on the shelf, and the bones of that refuge are being picked clean by big business and giants moving in with a need to refresh and invigorate their starving imaginations. Too late. Worse, they employ the very tactics that cause their own shortage of creative energy, and apply those tactics to the inventive community they’re trying to sponge from. Soiling their own water supply, as it were.
The Pillars of Dawn has dozens of scenes that take place along 23rd, and Thurman, and the alphabet quarter of NW. Those scenes are frozen in time. They take place in 2011, and 2012. The old bus routes, the old walking paths, and along business fronts that may or may not still exist.
Progress, as it’s called, happens. The cycle of arts communities making property valuable, then being driven out by price increases, then gentrified to the point of the property and community losing its voice and its energy—oldest urban development story in the book.
This may all sound harsh. Embittered, even. Nostalgic for the loss of a time and space, a once-upon-a-dream. It may sound like I’m trying to stick it in the eye of a former employer. That may all even be true- but it doesn’t change the reality of the data. Businesses that can no longer imagine for themselves will feed on energy where they can find it. Profiteers will always raise the rent as those businesses come searching for creative resource. Artists and creatives, and small businesses that support those imaginations will always be driven out by this feeding frenzy. Hundreds of years of urban development stories around the globe make for a compelling study of economics chasing after ingenuity.
The oasis becomes a dust bowl.
The part that I find heartbreaking is that it is entirely a preventable situation. Let me be frank. Times will change, and social priorities will change. Businesses and communities will come and go. Always evolution. Always change.
BUT---it IS possible to have both the richness of creativity AND the flourishing economic abundance of big business. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they can be symbiotic if encouraged and allowed to be. Few large business models incorporate artistry as a functional and bolstering place in the matrix of employment culture, employment wellness, and even community connectivity. Even fewer businesses hear and accept input from creatives on strategy and development. Bloated businesses built solely on profit consider the creative edges too risky to glean from, even though the statistical reality shows profits will follow innovation and creative ingenuity. Instead they wait for the trend to show, then once others have risked the edge of the known product world…only then do they try to catch the wave. By then it’s too late.
Be there ahead of the wave. Even better, hire the creatives to build the wave for you. Spare the neighborhood the picking over. Spare the artists colonies from having to pick up and leave. Build them INTO the plan…and everyone wins.
I’m writing The Pillars of Dawn because I believe in the kinematic energy of creativity. I believe in its dynamic power to evolve lives, humanity, communities, business, and even economy. Will I be able to express that clearly in my work? I don’t know, but I will keep trying. Mostly, I hope to write stories that provide an escape, some entertainment, and a little food for thought.
Because I believe creativity has the ability to save us…and we are in desperate need of saving.