If I’m not a Bohemian I don’t know who is. Not only am I a playwright, but I spent several years living in the capital of Bohemia, Prague. I live and breathe my art, and anyone who knows me well will attest to me being a little socially unconventional at times. I don’t drive a car, I put my faith in philosophy not religion (unheard of right?), I often wake up in the middle of the night with crazy ideas for flash mobs with helium balloons and board games made of felt, and I’ve pretty much dabbled in every artistic medium there is.
True to the Bohemian stereotype though, especially in the years I lived in Czechia, I also spent a lot of time feeling miserable. I know, I know. Creating art isn’t always passion and bonfires. I get that. Totally. Creating art is sometimes suffering. And I get too, that some people might say, “Stu, you lived in Prague, the city of a thousand spires, are you really going to tell me you were unhappy?” You’re right. I wasn’t unhappy all the time. There were times, especially when I was working on my plays, or backpacking across Europe, and making friends and catching up with friends, when I was ridiculously happy. I’m a pretty optimistic person by nature, and my time overseas was absolutely amazing. But inevitably, even in a city so rich with culture and art, and living my dream, I still sank at times into depression. There were times when I felt like I was flying. I wasn’t just riding a magic carpet, I was the magic carpet, capable of doing anything and going anywhere, but there were also times when I felt myself unravelling at the seams at full speed, my creatives threads tangled around a thousand different things and places at once. I still fell apart, and I think a lot of that has to do with writing too much.
I’ve never suffered from writer’s block. Really. Never. I always find that faced with a blank page I can always write something. Whether that something is drivel or a masterpiece is another matter, but I can always write. Yet, there is another side to that coin. It’s writing too much. It’s sacrificing your health for the sake of your craft. It’s jeopardising the happiness you might have now for the misguided hope of finding more happiness in the future.
That’s like a fishermen throwing back his freshly-caught fish in the hope of catching a marlin. It doesn’t make sense.
Here’s what I’ve learnt: there is a difference between suffering within the creative process as part of your artistic journey and suffering outside of that creative process and using your artistic path as an excuse to feel miserable.
Unfortunately, lacking balance between work and personal life has consequences. For years I’ve neglected my back, sitting at my desk for hours on end at times and not getting up to stretch my arms and legs, and failing to even rest my eyes. There was a time when I drank like a fish (hey, I lived in Prague, the beer there is like some kind of golden nectar made by the gods, it’s 2AUD for a pint, could I be blamed?) I ate deep fried cheese for lunch and those freezer pizzas that taste like cardboard for dinner (washed down with another pint of beer of course). I’m lucky to have the metabolism of a gazelle so luckily, none of it really showed. Still, my gut suffered the onslaught.
Picture me in Prague, sitting in a dingy smoke-filled pub, a pint in each hand (yes, a pint in each hand) a joint in each hand (yes, a joint in each hand), jumping on tables (yes, actually jumping on tables), and kissing pretty girls in pretty beer gardens. It was a lot of fun. But there were also nights when I punched holes in walls, and wandered through the streets at 3AM so blind drunk I only know where I got to not how I got there, and sat in cliched piles of scrunched up papers while the world and the universe beckoned me outside to play. To me, Prague was the Wild West. I could do things in Prague that I couldn’t do in Australia, because I could be free to be another me, free from the baggage of family and past habits. I could be reckless in my personal life and my career.
In many ways, I’m glad I was reckless. There is a time to be reckless in life and through recklessness we often learn great life lessons. More often though, I neglected my social and love life for my other lover, my novel. My friends were often in awe of me, and told me so. Not so much for how many pints I knocked back but because I was so industrious. When I told them I felt like a hamster in a wheel, working on my novel for hours on end each day, my friends clapped their hands and told me “nonsense”, I was living the dream, I was doing something they weren’t. I have the metabolism of a gazelle remember? I looked good. I looked healthy. And I was “going for it”. I was doing the “right thing”. I certainly wasn’t suffering from writer’s block.
No. Of course I wasn’t. I was seduced by something else – the evil cousin of writer’s block, that more discrete, more consuming, more addictive muse who gets you up at 2AM to write poems and philosophical essays for her, who gets jealous of you meeting your friends even for just one beer, who tells you she wants you to love her and only her. She is dangerous. Like some kind of deranged junky, she doesn’t care that your fridge is bare, she doesn’t care that you’re tired or dissatisfied, she only cares that she has you and you have her. In your veins. She is the tenth muse never spoken of, the black sheep of the gods, and the most dangerous muse you’re ever likely to meet – she is what I call “writer’s frenzy”. You might call her creative obsession, or the patron saint of “workaholicism”.
Writer’s frenzy isn’t something many people talk about. I doubt you’ll find it any “how to” writing ebooks. Actually, I’m pretty sure I made the term up. Indeed, some writer’s have never had it (whether that’s good fortune or not, I’ll let you decide). So let me further explain. Writer’s frenzy is the opposite of writer’s block. It’s writing for the sake of writing. It’s spinning the wheels on the bicycle when you’re already losing control down the mountain and the pedals are only turning air. To some degree, writer’s frenzy is great. We should all write a Jerry McGuire manifesto at least once in our lives. I’m sure writer’s frenzy is what a lot of writers might even strive for. But what’s that old saying? Too much of a good thing is sometimes not such a good thing.
Writer’s frenzy is not flow. Though it might start off as flow, it’s not destined to be a zen state. It’s mania. It’s the other extreme edge of the seesaw. Writer’s frenzy doesn’t just make Jerry McGuire write a manifesto one night, she makes him write one every night. It’s not healthy, and though it often disguises itself as intense productivity connecting you with the world and your passion, writer’s frenzy can lead us to misery and disconnection. And this doesn’t just apply to writers or even just artists. We all write our lives in this world whether we are merchant bankers or circus clowns. Writer’s frenzy keeps us toiling away only as a means of ignoring our real world problems. It comes down to this: are you using your work as an excuse to alienate yourself from the world?
I know I’m guilty of doing just that, especially in the years I lived in Bohemia. Sure, I’ve had success. I wrote four sell-out theatre plays in Prague and loved every minute of the journey. But I also at times disconnected myself from the world. Whether I was washing away my inner problems with beer and unhealthy habits, or spinning the wheels of my novel for the sake of spinning the wheels, I spent a lot of time running away. From a lot of things actually, maybe even success. It was probably a good thing to not always have two pints and two joints in hand. But sometimes the writing has to wait because health should never be sacrificed. Everything must be in balance.
The tenth muse must be put in her place.
Lately, I’ve been taking care of myself again. I refuse to be a struggling, miserable artist drowning my sorrows like any another stereotypical “Bohemian” artist. Because I’ve decided that no longer will art be my heroin. No. Art will be my heroine.
I’ve bought a back brace for my back. I’m doing yoga in the mornings. I’m drinking chamomile tea instead of endless coffee. I’m teaching myself to get up early again (I’m pushing for 5AM). I’m being a healthy writer. I’m going to be a happy artist. I can still be a Bohemian, I just choose to be a Bohemian who lives life to the fullest wherever I am.
The important thing is to be healthy, because by being healthy you can walk the creative path for longer and eventually, who knows, you might even realise where it is you’re really heading to.
Wanna join me? …