Acceptance, Success, Exercise, and Altars

Week 11 of The Artist’s Way impresses upon us the importance of “recovering a sense of autonomy”. I’m not entirely sure that the word “autonomy” is the right one to use in this sense, but we’ll ignore that and simply move forward.

There are a few steps, according to this chapter, that help us to recover our “autonomy”. The first is to accept that we are artists. That may seem a little redundant at this point of the game, but I do understand what the author is getting at. The thing is that artists tend to be a little different; we’re odd, we value different things, we prefer to use our time differently, we see beauty where others do not. The result of this is often a lack of support from those around us. People think we’re weird for wasting our time on our art, they see us as immature or socially awkward. These reactions can encourage us to “straighten up and fly right”, to change ourselves to suit the image that those around us want to see. We teach our kids to be themselves, but as adults we expect everyone to adhere to a certain set of rules. Artists have to accept that this is the way people will be, but that we don’t have to put up with it. Put simply, if I want to paint murals on my bedroom walls, or wear ridiculously flamboyant clothes, or spend all my time sitting in the park and scribbling in a notebook, that’s my choice as an artist. Other people will think that there’s something wrong with me, but if I want to be an artist I have to accept that others aren’t always going to be accepting.

The second step is understanding what “success” truly means. First things first, not all artists will ever attain what the outside world sees as success (namely, making good money). It’s a sad but simple fact that all artists have to deal with…they may never make a good living with their art. There are simply too many factors. For instance, I may write the greatest novel the world has ever seen, but if it happens to be on a topic that people are not currently interested in reading about, it simply won’t sell. Understanding that, we have to look at success in different terms. Success for one may simply be achieving publication. For another it may be selling a certain number of books. The end game isn’t important, because there is no end game. Art isn’t something that comes to a finish because you achieved what you set out to achieve. I may publish a book and call that success, but the moment that happens it doesn’t mean that I’ve succeeded in becoming a real artist; it just means that I hit a goal. There will always be more to do. I can’t just write one book, publish it, sell a million copies. That would be great, but if I want to continue to be an artist, I have to write another book, reach new goals. In other words, enjoy life’s little successes, but know that there will always be more to strive for.

The third step, apparently, is exercise. I have to admit, I was a little surprised to see this topic pop up in this particular book, but the author is not enforcing a physically fit lifestyle. Rather, she is letting us know that exercise can be a helpful tool toward creativity. We live in a fairly sedentary world, and we find every possible reason not to engage in regular exercise (how many of us “don’t have time” for exercise, but seem to find plenty of time to spend on Facebook every day?), but regular exercise can be a great way to de-stress, clear the mind, and bring creativity to the forefront. Even a ten minute walk in the sun can make us feel calmer, happier, and ready to get to work.

And the forth step, another surprise, is to build an “artist’s altar”. That seems terribly religious, I know, but it’s really not at all. An “artist’s altar” is simply a special place that makes you feel happy and productive. As an example, a painter might have a special room that is only for painting, that is filled with tons of supplies and fun stuff. The painter may even splash random colors of paint on the walls if it suits her fancy and makes her feel more creative. A photographer, alternatively, might have a particular wall in their house on which they display their favorite photos in lovely frames. Or a web designer might have a large corner desk with multiple screens and some interesting designs pinned to a cork board above it.

These four steps, apparently, are the key to “autonomy”. I don’t know if that’s true, but I know myself.

Myself, I accepted a long time ago that I’m an artist and a lot of people aren’t going to “get” that. It doesn’t matter. Writing makes me happy, and I don’t need other people to understand that.

Myself, I’ve made peace with the fact that I may never be conventionally “successful” as a writer. It’s enough for me to work toward one goal at a time and see where the wind takes me.

Myself, I don’t always get as physical as I should, but I do what I can and I can vouch for the fact that exercise makes a lot of other parts of my life come together in a god way.

Myself, I don’t currently have an “artist’s altar”, but I’ve been working toward one because it’s something I’ve craved for a long time, so hopefully I’ll have one in the near future.

I don’t know if these steps make me “autonomous”, but they’re definitely all things that I can agree are important parts of being an artist, so I guess that’s what matters in the end.

Have you “accepted” yourself as an artist? What is your version of “success”? Does exercise help you to create? Do you have an “artist’s altar”? Please share!

The (Family) Cabin in the Woods

When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I was just starting to get into scary stuff. I had always been a bit of a wuss (it took me about twenty tries to get all the way through Pinocchio because Monstro the Whale scared the bejeezus out of me), but at about this point in my life I was just starting to appreciate the thrill that came with being scared. I was starting to read books like the Goosebumps series, and on Friday nights I would watch Are You Afraid of the Dark? on YTV. Often I would freak myself out, sometimes even giving myself nightmares, but I also loved the feeling of being scared, the giddy thrill.

At this time in my life my grandparents still had their cabin out in the middle of the woods. It was a modest cabin on a nice lot of land, and often our entire family would go out for days on end; we would cram aunts and uncles and cousins and family friends and sometimes even pets into a three-bedroom deal with one toilet and now that I’m thinking of it, was there even a shower in that cabin? It was crowded and half falling apart, and often we would arrive to find that a bat or a small family of mice had taken up residence while we’d been away, but it was awesome and we all loved it.

My grandmother, traveling the old roads with my cousin.
My grandmother, traveling the old roads with my cousin.
Loving the "coat" rack, eh?
Loving the “coat” rack, eh? And my uncle, rockin’ the pink shirt!

To one side of the cabin property there was a small mobile home, an older model with only one bed. It was permanently parked there and sometimes a couple of the adults would use it to create more space when there were too many of us staying at the cabin all at once. As kids, my cousins and I loved this little trailer because there were just enough trees between it and the cabin that we felt like we were in our own area, free from our parents, camping all by ourselves out in the big, bad woods. We would have little adventures in that mobile home, and because I was starting to get into this idea of purposely scaring yourself (see how I brought those two subjects together?), I would often imagine that when we were in there we were surrounded by monsters or wolves or zombies. It gave me a little thrill, even though I knew I was perfectly safe and that my parents or my grandparents or my aunts and uncles were very near by.

Can you tell we were rebels back then? lol
Can you tell we were rebels back then? lol That’s me on the right…cute as a bug.
Lazy summer days...and we had NO TECHNOLOGY OF ANY KIND.
Lazy summer days…and we had NO TECHNOLOGY OF ANY KIND.

One particular night, some of my cousins and I were playing in the mobile home. As previously mentioned, I was about 8 or 9, which means that Tommy was the same; Leah would have been 11 or 12, and that would make Matthew about 5 or 6. The four of us were hanging out in the mobile home, all piled together on that one bed, and for the life of me I can’t remember what we were doing in there, but we were having a blast. It was getting dark outside and we were just enjoying having our special little place in the middle of the woods.

Then Matthew said something about seeing someone walk past the window above our heads. We completely ignored him because he was the young one, and the young ones never get listened to, am I right? A few minutes later he said the same thing again and I remember we were all like, “Matthew, shut up, geeze. Don’t be a baby.”

We continued on, ignoring the young one, as older ones tend to do, and then suddenly Leah heard something…a scratching noise. If I’m remembering correctly she ignored it the first time, but the second time it happened she shushed us all. And we heard it too. Every couple of seconds, a scritchy-scratchy noise against the side of the trailer. It brought to mind images of something with claws – coyotes were common in that area – pawing at the outer walls, trying to find a way in.

Here’s where nervous denial began to set in, because earlier in the day another of my cousins – Billy, who is the same age as Tommy and I – had gotten mad at us for some reason or another and stormed off. We anxiously assumed that it was him, trying to screw with us. Leah shouted out a couple of times for him to cut it out, that he was being a jerk. There was no response except for further scratching, which was now growing in intensity and seemed to be coming from multiple directions at once. There was no way Billy could be scratching the right side and the left side of the trailer at one time, we reasoned. Now we were getting really nervous.

The childish imagination is an amazing thing. All of a sudden there were a thousand possibilities running through our minds. What was out there? Why was it bothering us? Could it get in? Why did it want to get in? Where the heck was the rest of our family? Surely one of the adults would have noticed if something had approached the mobile home…right?

It seemed like hours passed as my three cousins and I glanced nervously from wall to wall, window to window, from one to another. And then the scratching suddenly…stopped. We glanced at each other, and for whatever reason our gazes all gravitated toward the same thing all at once: the door knob. I’ll never forget the three things that happened next…

Leah nudged Tommy and asked, “Did you lock the door?”

Tommy gulped and replied, “I think so.”

And then the entire trailer shook with an earth-shattering BANG! as if it had been hit by a semi truck.

To say that we reacted poorly might be a bit of an understatement. I have vivid recollections of Leah and I screaming for our grandfather, while Matthew cried for his mother and managed to shimmy his way up on top of my and Leah’s heads, and Tommy turned white as fresh snow and very nearly passed out. The decibel levels in that trailer nearly reached critical mass, and I’m sure each of us came as close as any young child ever comes to having a full-on heart attack.

A moment later the door opened to reveal our grandmother – who was practically in stitches – and our aunt, lamenting that she’d broken one of her nails whilst scratching the trailer. It took my cousins and I half a moment to realize what had happened, and half a week to forgive our relatives for nearly sending us all into coronaries.

But here’s the thing: as mad as we were at the time, and as difficult as it was to calm the panicked racing of our childish hearts, it has been one of our favorite stories to recount for the past decade and a half. The tension was so real, the terror so visceral, that I’ve never had any problem picturing the event just as it happened, even though it was years and years ago. I’ve even occasionally dreamed about that night, complete with the heart-stopping panic that accompanied it. That’s the power of fear, and it’s moments like this particular event that make me want to write horror. I don’t want to gross people out, or give them cheap SUPER-LOUD-NOISE! jump scares like so many of the horror movies of today. I want to scare. I want to make people’s skin crawl. I want to make my readers feel uncomfortable sitting in the dark by themselves. I want to make people feel the way I felt as a little kid, sitting in that trailer in the middle of the night, thinking that god-knows-what was about to break through the walls and steal me or eat me or rip me to shreds. I want to give readers that visceral thrill of pure, cold terror.

I think that’s an important part of an artist’s life: wanting to share your experiences, in whatever way you can. My inner child remembers the wonder of fear, the racing heart and ice-like chills, and I want to share that with the world if I can. If one reader someday tells me that I scared them out of their wits, I’ll feel like I accomplished something great.

Do you have any scary memories that stand out in your mind? Scary tales that you can look back on and laugh at? Did you like scary stuff as a kid? Do you enjoy it as an adult? Please share!