When I was co-writing Edgar & Ellen books for Star Farm Productions, we authors were meant to be a secret cabal writing under a pen name, and thus we kept our identities under wraps. Our work may have been unknown to the readership, but we were regularly on display for investors or potential business partners — we were a devastatingly charming and handsome group, so it was good business to let the money folks mingle among us, I suppose.
Whether or not we were as charming or handsome as I recall, our most frequently asked questions from these practical people were “Where do you get your ideas?” and, alarmingly, “How do you know you won’t run out of ideas?” To some folks, this was a mystery akin to the Meaning of the Cosmos.
I call it “making the white space go away” — the act of facing a blank piece of paper and filling it with ideas and complete sentences. Plenty of people can edit; show them a story you’ve written and they can wade in with a red pen and find all kinds of wrong with it. But actually making the white space go away to begin with, this is the act of mystic sorcery that gives non-creatives clammy hands and dyspepsia.
Until the last 10 years or so, I had no idea how many people fear and loathe this notion. To these people, creatives appear to be magicians, lion tamers and clowns rolled into one. It may be why so many of us dress like walking carnivals.
Except for Tom Wolfe, of course.
Anyway, creativity is like a mischievous poltergeist. You can be terrified of it, or you can be kind of fascinated with it; you can study it or try to trap it, but you’ll probably have more luck letting it run roughshod over you. (Maybe the ghost will like this, and befriend you.) Feline, creativity is aloof one minute and desperate to be scratched the next. Why it comes and goes is anyone’s guess.
One thing is certain: There’s no lack of inspiration if you’re willing to work for it, or are patient enough to let it approach you on tentative paws. I’ve watched two documentaries recently about creators I admire, and each comes with a unique view of where creators get their juice.
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts
Composer Philip Glass made his fame on minimalistic music that — to some tastes — beats the ear down with the relentless rhythm of a rusty wheat thresher. To me, though, the best of his repertoire is among the most inspiring created by man. It can be:
exhilarating, like the opening to “Powaqqatsi,” where he scores a tune to the unbelievable toil of Brazilian gold miners; or
meditative, as this piano sonata that transports you to the most peaceful place on this plane or any other; or
uplifting, like this tune from “Mishima” (the entire soundtrack of which stands in contrast to the bleakness of its story).
Some of Glass’ music, I’ll allow, can drive away ears with its mechanical chill and occasional stone-cold weirdness. (His defense of that: “There’s lots of music in this world — Mozart, the Beatles. Go listen to that. You have my blessing.”) I half expected the man of such extremes to be a shut-in or a misanthrope. Turns out, he’s the most jovial Good Time Charlie you can imagine. At one point, he’s kneading pizza dough for a whole cabin full of family and professional performance friends. How jolly!
“He’s the exact opposite of the lone composer in his hut,” one colleague says.
When asked about how he’s doing on a symphony he’s writing, Glass admits he is struggling.
“It’s puzzling. I don’t know sometimes where we’re going with it,” he says. But he stays at it, saying that although the struggle can be scary for less experienced creators, he’s confident that at this point in his career, a creative solution will present itself.
“You’re like the fisherman on the water waiting for the bite. It’ll come,” he says. “But it doesn’t come if you’re not there waiting for it. You’ve got to do the work or it doesn’t come.”
(This is a similar solution for inspiration espoused in that great TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert: Show up for work!)
Then Glass delivers a line that rang my bell: “I think of (creation) as one of those rivers that’s running underground and you don’t know where it is. But you know it’s running.”
“So it’s like divining water?” asks the interviewer.
Glass pauses. “Who the hell knows?”
Exactly. Just keep prospecting for that mysterious river.
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
The author of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72” traded exclusively in rage and outrageousness. Words to him were knives and hammers to expose hypocrisy — or just honk off the squares. His brain-bent “Gonzo” brand of journalism flowed from him in the ’60s and ’70s at an astonishing rate.
Where did HST’s creativity come from? There’s no doubt that psychedelics were an important Muse for him. As a reminder, let us catalog once more the famous contents of the convertible’s trunk in the semi-autobiographical “Vegas”:
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine and a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … Also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
But the only thing that worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible than a man in the depths of an ether binge. And I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon.
Gonzo indeed. In a book only nominally about the coverage of a desert motocross race, Thompson blew the lids off his audience with a nonstop, holy-cow-get-a-load-of-this litany of bizarre behavior.
In addition to being a hoot, the drug-fueled madness of “Vegas” gave rise to an alter-ego: “Raoul Duke,” a flagrant degenerate who was a thin surrogate for Thompson, allowing the author to adopt a larger than life image. Did Hunter really get wasted and imagine a flying bat attack while driving top speed to Barstow, or was that just a fictional embellishment that happened to fictional Duke? Eh, who can tell? And who cares when it’s this preposterously fun?
Which gives birth to Thompson’s other Muse. Raoul Duke gave him a voice, an affectation, an excuse to filter everything through the angry hedonism of this character, and it drove everything he would do in the rest of his career. In other words, he was able to derive inspiration not from Glass’ underground river, but from the question, “What Would Duke Do?”
If he had limited himself to books about excessive drug use, he might have worn out his welcome and made nothing of any further relevance. But Thompson had a keen interest in politics, and when he combined Duke with Tricky Dick, he wrote the most scathing and penetrating journalism about politics ever written, “Campaign Trail”:
How long , O Lord … How long? Where will it end? The only possible good that can come from this wretched campaign is the ever-increasing likelihood that it will cause the Democratic Party to self-destruct…the more I learn about the realities of national politics, the more I’m convinced that the Democratic Party is an atavistic endeavor — more an Obstacle than a Vehicle — and that there is really no hope of accomplishing anything new or different in American politics until the Democratic Party is done away with.
It is a bogus alternative to the politics of Nixon: A gang of senile leeches like George Meany, Hubert Humphrey and Mayor Daley … Scoop Jackson, Ed Muskie and Frank Rizzo, the super-cop mayor of Philadelphia.
George McGovern is a Democrat, and I suppose I have to sympathize in some guilt-stricken way with whatever demented obsession makes him think he can somehow cause this herd of venal pigs to see the light and make him their leader.
This is journalism that begs to be read aloud. Thompson took no crap, alternately exposing truths and spreading lies through his dispatches for “Rolling Stone.” Consider this immortal bit of commentary:
Some people will say that words like “scum” and “rotten” are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place.
Through it all, Raoul Duke’s cynicism and cockeyed antisocial behavior cut through phoniness. But receiving inspiration through an alter-ego had its drawback. Thompson/Duke became larger than the stories he covered; he was no longer an observer at an event, he was the event. He acquired groupies and hangers-on and myriad distractions. In one interview he acknowledged that his surrogate was almost too big: “I’m really in the way as a person. I’m an appendage (to Raoul Duke).”
Aforementioned tony dresser Tom Wolfe agreed. In an interview for this movie, he said: “It must have been a burden. He must have felt trapped in Gonzo.”
The trap was pretty complete. Thompson hit the bottom when, on assignment to cover the 1974 Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle,” he couldn’t be bothered to actually attend the fight. Wallowed so deep in a drugged out daze, he missed one of the classic boxing matches of all time. This point is as good as any to chart the beginning of his downward slide into creative bankruptcy and irrelevancy.
And he knew it. “Gonzo” the documentary shows a man who recognized he was running out of creative juice — though it’s not clear if he blamed the drugs as much as his second-banana status to his alter-ego.
In any event, in 2005, depressed about the American policies of the time, tired of watching his creative output dwindle, and generally fed up with being “bitchy,” Thompson picked a lovely day while his son was visiting to step into an adjoining room and put a bullet in his head.
Did he choose the wrong Muse? The uppers and downers versus the underground river? Depends — he sure enjoyed success and left his mark on literature and American culture. But instead of choosing a renewable resource like Glass, he chose a finite source for his creativity: a spliff lit at both ends.