In my introductory email to Lauren before I began coaching sessions with her, I explicitly stated that I was hoping she would be able to convince me not to take up writing with any kind of seriousness. Because I’m not an author. I might be a writer, for some meaning of the word “writer”, but that’s a different thing.
Lately I’ve received some encouragement to keep working on Verity, and I’m not entirely certain if some of that is because the people offering the encouragement just really care about me and want to, you know, encourage me (which I deeply appreciate), or if they actually see something that I can’t see about the whole situation. But the thing is, and it took me a while to discover the very simple words to explain this, Verity is not a novel, even if I have spent over a year calling it that. Not only is Verity not a novel, I’m never going to finish it, and even if I did, it’s the only story I have. So I’m not an author.
There are a number of reasons for this. Primarily, writing is not my passion. I’m not willing to suffer for it. I’m exceptionally lazy about writing — I only write when inspiration strikes, and every single bit of advice I’ve ever read about following a creative path in any domain is that waiting for inspiration to strike means you will never, ever accomplish anything real. Not only that, but I basically never write anything that I can’t complete in one sitting, usually thirty minutes to a couple of hours, all in one go. And if it doesn’t turn out relatively decent on the first attempt, if it doesn’t lead to some kind of insight or catharsis, then I basically abandon it. That’s no way to be a writer, let alone an author, and that’s actually really okay with me.
This approach to writing basically limits me to extremely episodic or limited kinds of storytelling. The idea of trying to string together all the bits of Verity into something coherent holds absolutely no appeal to me, because, again, writing is not my passion. Yes, I love Millie and Ada, and having them in my life has been utterly transformational in a way that I wish I could even begin to describe. But I don’t need them to be in a novel or any kind of grand narrative in order for them to have meaning for me. After all, they are nothing more than projections of my own psyche onto imaginary human forms whose words, facial expressions, and body language I can far more easily interpret than I can interpret my own feelings directly.
And feelings and emotion are the absolute basis of anything I’ve ever felt good about having written. Verity is pure, refined emotion, and I absolutely love that about it. I love the relationship between Millie and Ada, and it tears me apart inside to tear the two of them apart. I feel Millie’s exhilaration as she tries to figure out the mystery of Ada, and my heart is ripped into tiny, ecstatic pieces when Elizabeth discovers that Ada died in the arms of someone who loved her. It’s pure catharsis and an indescribable rush, but that kind of intensity is exceptionally difficult for me to muster, and even more difficult to maintain for an extended period of time. Because although I can be pure emotion, I am more than emotion alone, and for the rest of me I have my other project.
There’s another thing about writing, and about Millie and Ada in particular, though it took me a couple loops through the cycle to see the pattern. Early this year I decided to start paying attention to the kinds of things I felt like doing when it seemed that a depressive episode was either oncoming or had already snuck in, and it turns out that writing is one of those things. When my life is going well, when I’m on a roll with my other project, I can go for months without writing a single word and I don’t miss it at all. I just keep on trucking. And then I hit a wall, even if it’s in slow motion, and the urge to write comes back with a vengeance.
Sometimes it’s just an increased fervor for writing in my journal, but a couple of times now it has been about sharing some of my writing. On the first occasion it was mostly just with Lauren, but then more recently with all of you. Both of those times, though, it has been Millie and Ada that showed up and pushed me to do it. I have come to the conclusion that they’re my traveling companions on my Hero’s Quest, or rather my Heroine’s or Virgin’s Quest in Kim Hudson’s terms, where the former is about internalizing communal values, and the latter about internalizing a sense of personal agency. Despite the gendered naming, anyone can theoretically and metaphorically go on multiple such quests throughout their life, always alternating between a Hero’s Quest and a Heroine’s Quest.
Although I only have two examples from which to draw the following conclusion, I feel confident in asserting that Millie and Ada show up when I’m at my lowest, when some psychological imbalance throws me into a state of desperation and crushing uncertainty as to how to move forward. They show up in order to catalyze a restoration of that lost balance, to remind me that I do have a capacity for love, even self love, and even if I have to project myself onto two imaginary women who are so easy for me to love when a more direct self love is impossible. They are signs that redemption is always there within me, and that I just need to be reminded of that fact every now and then, because holy shit can I forget it.
For the last several paragraphs I’ve been trying to lay the groundwork to argue that if Millie and Ada are primarily mental constructs that I’ve invented to help me out of depression, then to continue working directly with them after that need has passed is simply not necessary and kind of misses the point of their profound importance. But as with everything, there’s more to it than that, and it has to do with my other project that I keep mentioning. Or my other projects, because I guess there are at least two.
The thing that I’ve been calling “my other project” is in fact my passion, the thing that I’m apparently more than willing to suffer for, because it always eventually leads me down a path to nihilism, doubt, and unbearable uncertainty. I’ve been rather reluctant to discuss it more than in passing, because it’s really not very good. It is intended to be software-based generative art, but after several years of work it’s still basically just a screen saver. At best. And yet I’m obsessed. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, or if it will ever be more than a mediocre screen saver, but I’ve decided to trust my intuition telling me that it’s something of extreme personal significance, whether or not I can ever translate that significance to something you might be able to feel. And I want you to feel it, my god I want that, because I sometimes think that that feeling might be the gift that I was put on this earth to give you, if I can ever get there.
Of course one way to look at what I’m doing, from a Myers-Briggs perspective, is that I’m being foolish and chasing after my unattainable inferior Extraverted Sensing. Elaine Schallock says that INFJs like me should never, ever try to make visual art, that it will bring nothing but misery and mediocrity. I can certainly agree that I will never be a painter or anything that requires such precise physical dexterity, but that’s why I’m writing software to create my visual work. Going at it indirectly, because I’m pretty good at writing software. To be sure, it’s still playing with fire, and that’s why I seem to keep pushing myself to a point of nihilism and uncertainty. I’m coming to believe, more and more though, that so must it be in order for me to make progress on what might be my overall project that connects everything else.
That overall project would be myself. Apparently that’s what we INFJs are typically driven to do, to “self actualize”. My intuition tells me that writing software to create animations is somehow in the general direction of how I can in fact self actualize. Mostly because it’s so damned difficult for me, and doing things that I’m unable to do must lie on the path of growth.
Certainly there’s nothing particularly difficult about the software I’m creating, in and of itself. The difficulty is that my end goal is nothing but an amorphous feeling, and translating that feeling into reality is immensely difficult. I don’t even have a mental picture of what I’m trying to accomplish, but I trust that I will know it if I ever encounter it, like whatshisface in the eighties who couldn’t define pornography, but said that he knew it when he saw it. And there’s a very good chance that I will never get far enough as to create something that I recognize as having that feeling that I yearn to evoke, but ultimately it’s possible that it might not even matter.
If nothing else, I’m obsessed with and have been obsessed with computer-generated imagery since I was 9 years old. It won’t let me go, so I keep going, doing something that I can’t do in a way that I find acceptable, and I try and fail and try and fail over and over again. But so must it be. I could try and fail with any number of goals in any number of different domains, but no other goal so ignites my burning need to try, and so no other goal can push me to do the indirect work of growing by failing and trying again.
I have a very dangerous idea about depression, and I’m reluctant to discuss it because I don’t want to imply in any way that depression is not deadly serious. If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, please, please seek help. But the thing is, I’ve never personally been suicidal, which is part of why I never recognized until fairly recently that this thing I’ve experienced on and off since at least adolescence is in fact depression. But I can’t really discuss the work I’m trying to do without explaining how I’m trying to use myself as a laboratory to study depression, or rather, to see if there’s something behind depression that, if better understood, need not in fact lead to the actual symptoms of depression.
This might seem like a stupid and dangerous thing to do, but the thing is, due to my wiring, I’m quite simply always going to seek out ways to push myself beyond my limits to the point where I become untethered and have to reboot and reorient myself. I don’t even think that I could choose to avoid going that far. I’m quite sure that it would happen no matter what evasive action I could conceivably try to take. So I might as well keep my eyes wide open, to study it while it’s happening to me, because then I have at least some hope of managing it instead of being tossed helplessly and blindly about by it as I was for some twenty five years before I started to look at it differently, thanks in large part to Ada and Millie, along with Michael Lamport Commons and his associates.
As an INFJ, I apparently also have little choice but to be fascinated by systems and theories about people and their behavior, which have in fact been lifelong obsessions of mine. My discovery a few years ago of the field of adult developmental psychology, initially via Robert Kegan, was extremely useful in illuminating a number of questions I had previously been unable even to think about in any meaningful way. Then sometime later I found Richards’ and Commons’ Model of Hierarchical Complexity, while their corresponding extension of Jean Piaget’s so-called dialectic of stage change has provided a perhaps very powerful explanation for many of the things I had been experiencing internally, and which it seems everyone else experiences in some way or another as well.
According to the theory, people come to certain relatively stable conclusions about how the world works, and from that world view it is possible to generate decisions about how to confidently take action or simply how to be. On many occasions throughout life, however, that world view needs to be torn down and reconstructed into something new, specifically when too much evidence mounts that the previous world view is insufficient to handle changing realities in life. As a first step in reconstruction, the previous world view is outright rejected, but without having anything like a suitable replacement. This is where nihilism comes from, be it the “NO!” of the terrible twos, the “No! I am not just a cog in the machine” of an early post-Authoritarian, pre-Modern dogmatic individualism, or the “No! There is no certain ground on which to stand” of deconstructive Post-Modernism, to give but a few examples.
Following this period of nihilism, one or more alternative perspectives are examined, but always at the same level of complexity as the recently rejected world view. An alternation between such perspectives begins, slowly, until many unsuccessful attempts are made to “smash” those perspectives together into something new. Eventually, the competing perspectives are combined into a new world view of higher complexity that combines, subsumes, and yet expands upon, contains, and coordinates the previously incompatible perspectives.
I believe this is also a description of exactly the process that we mean when we speak about “creativity”. Everyone since forever has recognized the connection between creativity and some form of madness, be it unipolar or bipolar depression, or something else entirely. All of the self help books for those of us who live our lives of quiet desperation instead of actually creating art discuss either directly or indirectly the rampant presence of depression among those who feel drawn to creative work. It’s a cliché, really. But it always seems as though depression is seen as some random and yet unavoidable side effect, as though, well, if you want the “creativity” option, that only comes as a package deal with a propensity for depression. Sorry, no à la carte upgrades for you. But I don’t think it’s mere random correlation, and Piaget, Richards, Commons, et al have presented a possibility for why that might be.
In order to create a broader, more inclusive mental construct, one must first, inevitably, undergo a period of rejecting a less complex, less suitable perspective. Nihilism. All creativity is preceded by nihilism, and I believe this is an entirely inescapable phenomenon. And since that nihilism can and typically does lead to depression, all creativity, by necessity, is largely an emotional process. What is depression but a terrifying, crushing, unbearable sense that there is no way forward? Of not having a stable perspective from which to draw conclusions about how to act, or even to think about our place in the world?
Of course I could be completely wrong, which would be illuminating in its own right, but I can’t really know that without doing research on it, and the only research subject that I could ethically recruit is myself. I will repeat, if you or someone you know is suffering from depression, please, please seek help. But I will also repeat that I don’t believe I have any personal choice in whether or not I will experience these repeated periods of nihilism, and since I have never gone so far as to be suicidal, I think that I can only improve my own situation, along, I pray, with that of the people around me, by studying my depressive episodes as they occur, or at the very least by observing them consciously instead of being tossed about helplessly by them. Thank god my brain invented Millie and Ada to help me during the worst of it.
The only time I really enjoy writing is when it brings about some kind of realization or even just a new possibility to explore, some alternate viewpoint I hadn’t previously recognized as being available. And I have one small realization that started creeping in a few paragraphs ago. My suspicion has long been that the period of nihilism itself is the basis from which the symptoms of depression grow, but I wonder, and it seems as though I’ve already read something that would support this, I wonder if depression is instead a build up of mental energy fighting desperately to avoid entering the period of nihilism, to cling furiously to the old, failing perspective in order to avoid having to undergo the intensely emotional and laborious work of rebuilding a new perspective. If so, I wonder if there’s a way to choose to let go with less of a fight, with less terror and desperation.
And I might have some evidence to support the idea that the nihilism itself is not the problem, at least for me personally, which might or might not apply to others. As I said I find myself constantly struggling with my software art. It can be awful sometimes, like a thousand pound weight crushing my sternum. I understand and believe the oft repeated advice that creative work requires a love of the process instead of a focus on outcomes, and I often ignore that advice, which of course might be the actual source of my problems. The follow-on advice is that one should focus their energy on whatever that task is whose process they love. Excellent runners love running. Excellent painters love painting. Logical enough. But whenever I try to think of what process I love, I consistently come up empty handed. I like writing software when I can get into flow, but I don’t love it. I love Millie and Ada, but I only like writing about them. Although it tends to be more outcome oriented, the one thing that I consistently love in my work is when I can say “No! That thing I was doing! That’s not it!” It appears that saying no, for me, is joy.
I love finding out that I have been wrong. I love letting go of the chains that I had previously allowed to hold me down because I could never even see them binding me. But is that a new perspective of greater complexity, or is it simply the nihilism that is the first step in the construction of a new perspective? I’m quite certain it’s the latter.
When Millie and Ada first showed up almost two years ago, I did not want to do the work they were asking of me. But through them and through other things I was writing at the time, I came to the decision to renounce my software art completely. I thought it was definitive, that I would never write another line of code. And yet I did not simultaneously decide that I would become a writer instead, even if I did consider it a possibility. I merely decided that I was done with software, forever, and I was elated. I gushed about it and told anyone around me who would listen, whereas previously I had never, ever dared speak of my creative ambitions except in the most passing and non-committal of terms.
And then several months later I changed my mind again and went back to work on my software, albeit with new eyes and a newfound ability to make progress without having to torture myself into doing it. I got almost an entire year of steady work out of that, almost an entire year of not falling into an abyss of uncertainty and loss of direction. It turns out that all of the work that came out of that year is crap, and I’m going to discard something like 90% of it, but that’s not really the issue. It’s fine because for a while I got to feel like I was making progress, got to experience long periods of flow, and then I got to say no to it. I really like the first of those things, but I think I love the latter.
So to the best of my current ability to see, my overall project seems to be about observing myself as I go through these loops of productivity on my software art, to hitting a brick wall, to lifting myself back up by writing words instead of code, and then repeating. I don’t think I can do such work without having both writing and my software art as integral but not exclusive components of the process. I have long yearned to be able to combine my logical side and my feeling side into some single art practice, but as yet they remain entirely distinct albeit loosely bound as temporally offset components of some larger process. So for now I can at least consider the loops and the observation of my psychological state throughout the loops to be the actual work that I’m doing, even if that often seems very unfulfilling. But who knows, maybe someday I’ll be able to take my visual work to the point where it can make you feel that thing that I want you to feel.