Creativity and the Fallen Warrior

For three days I’ve been sitting her under a pile of chores and things that need doing. I’m not doing them. I don’t care.

I’ve lost someone I loved to cancer just recently. My cat is sick. I’m sick. In the news, another fifty people were senselessly killed in New Zealand by some fanatic. Another creature sliding onto the endangered species list. Wildfires. Glaciers collapsing. The usual array of messed up, cruel and childish bullshit in Congress. Trump and his stupid fucking border wall. Politicians ranting about every injustice to get us all stirred up for the 2020 elections. Authors and artists begging for clicks. I drift through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, taking the blows.

The only things I respond to now with any glimmer of life are humor, animals, and beautiful things. An otter crunching on a crab. A homeless man giving his last bit of food to a stray dog. A friend’s garden. Esther the Wonder Pig. A funny meme. Anything involving cats. A cool upcoming film about a monster hunter. But every time I laugh or squee, I feel like an asshole. Where are my tears and indignation?

A friend on Facebook recently posted a funding campaign for cancer. It’s not that I don’t care; how could I not? But my mind shut down and I didn’t touch it. And when he posted a picture of his cat I hit the love button. Why? Because the need for support felt like a black hole, while the cat let a ray of light into my heart. Maybe I really am an asshole.

Truth is, I’m numb.

I see plea after plea. We’re all suffering, we all have issues. We must band together to protect and stand for each other, for the environment, for truth and justice. Yes, we must. But when I try to rise and lift my sword, I crumple under the weight. I’m so tired of grief, pain and outrage. It’s incessant. There are only so many times my heart can get hit before it closes down to protect itself. My inner warrior is sitting under a tree, shit drunk, glassy eyed, darkening the earth with the blood of a thousand wounds. Where is all this resolve supposed to come from?

Numb.

Trouble is, I’m not an asshole. The reason I go out and surf the internet fifty times a day is to find things that remind me that my heart is still open. That it can be. That it’s worth keeping that way.

It’s been months since I’ve written or painted anything of note. I need to heal and I feel like a stagnant pool in an old forest, oily and choked with slime, abandoned by frogs, snakes and salamanders. I spend most nights reading fantasy novels and binging on Dark Shadows. But today I remembered something.

The Source

The Source, by F.T. McKinstry

Creativity. It’s one of those words we hear so often that the meaning is lost. To me it’s everything, the source of hope. Anything is possible. But the creative force is tricky. Firstly, the very senses that make me creative are those which expose me to the pain. Close one down and lose the other. Open my heart to the healing waters and I’ll get annihilated. But then there’s this other thing. I can’t shut off the creative force for long; it finds me. It’s very clever. Pain and trauma aren’t the end-all be-all, oh no. They’re like an engine, driving me. All the books and stories I’ve written, the paintings, drawings and poetry. Warriors, seers, sorcerers, old forests, animals, the in-between realms. My realms. Metaphors, visions, psychological archetypes.

Healing. The world would have us believe it isn’t possible. That there is only dissolution, deterioration. How can that be true when we are all creators? Just look around. There are no limits to this. It’s infinite. Divine, even.

I mean c’mon. The cat memes alone…

© F.T. McKinstry 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Writing and the Fairy Dust of Familiarity

Oona Creeping, by F.T. McKinstry

Oona Creeping

Consciousness dislikes chaos. Like cats pacing the borders of the yard, we tend to treat familiar things as safe and reliable. It gives us a sense of security. Given that familiarity makes a lot of arbitrary assumptions about reality, however, I personally think it’s an illusion, a convenient facade that makes it easier to deal with things. That’s natural enough, but when it comes to writing, one wants to be careful.

I recently finished a novel. It’s entitled Outpost, interestingly, a term that implies an unfamiliar place in some context or another. I finished it, revised it, edited, polished, washed and repeated until every word was as familiar as the lines on my hand. I’m weary of looking at the thing, truth be told. I put it in the capable hands of my editor.

Now things get interesting (note the mild sarcasm). Being familiar with one’s words is insidiously comforting. The process of writing, both mystical and miserable at the same time, has a way of making one’s work beautiful. Oh yes, the Universe is singing its brilliance because after all, suffering is noble. This is perilous, like being dusted with fairy glitter. You might think you’re looking at a nice green field with flowers and butterflies but those flowers have thorns, there’s a cat lurking in the shadows, the butterfly is headed for a spider’s web and the lambs are fleeing from an impending earthquake. Chaos is everywhere. This is what a good editor will see, because she isn’t strung out on fairy glamor or glossing over the goblins with a palette knife heaped with love and imagination.

Hemlock, by F.T. McKinstry

Hemlock

A useful exercise is to put the book aside for a time, let the fairy dust wear off and go back to it with a more objective perspective. This only works if you’re able to face reality without the high. If something nags you or doesn’t look right, don’t brush it off for fear of chaos by deciding it’s fine. It probably isn’t. It takes strength and courage to see through familiarity and let the work evolve.

These days, everyone is a writer. So I see a lot of things on the internet about How to Know If You’re A Real Writer. That’s a big topic fraught with nail biting. But I figure one of the criteria is knowing what it’s like to wake up from the fairy glamor with a nasty headache, a broken heart and some healthy skepticism.

In other words, chaos is a writer’s friend.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Outpost Cover ArtOutpost, Book One in The Fylking.

A race of immortal warriors who live by the sword.
A gate between the worlds.
Warriors, royals, seers and warlocks living in uneasy peace on one side of the Veil.
Until now.

© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.

On the Outpost of Void

Outpost Void

Day before yesterday I wrote down the last line of Outpost, the first in my new fantasy series The Fylking. It’s big, epic and beautiful–and yikes do I feel weird. I should celebrate by dancing around or having a scotch or something. Instead I feel empty, as if everything has changed and now I don’t know what to do. I’m wandering around here like an idiot.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, but it always feels like it. I call it the Void and usually feel it after finishing a novel or a painting. I feel it in the fall after cleaning out the gardens. The creative force is awesome; it comes along and sets me on fire, and when it passes there’s a letting go, a scary, sad, dark place where the fire used to be. I want to crawl into it and cry.

It’s not as if the novel is finished. Oh dear no, I have much editing to do, and then I’ll send it to my editor so she can do her juju on it. But that’s the easy part. For now, I need to give the Void its due. It’s the source and culmination of all things.

Hmm. Suppose I could start by cleaning the cataclysm that is my desk.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Outpost Cover ArtOutpost, Book One in The Fylking.

A race of immortal warriors who live by the sword.
A gate between the worlds.
Warriors, royals, seers and warlocks living in uneasy peace on one side of the Veil.
Until now.

© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Yoga Crasher

Oona, by F.T. McKinstry
Her real name is Oona, named after a scrappy character in one of my stories, a shapeshifter who gets herself into trouble for crossing a wizard. It fits, trust me.

Oona looks a bit like the white cat in the Henri, le Chat Noir videos. Henri calls his companion an idiot. But Oona is no idiot.

She is a master.

Many say cats are psychic and I’ll attest to this. Oona has powers of teleportation, too. When I spread my yoga mat on the floor and put on some airy music, she appears from nowhere to participate in the ancient and venerable art of yoga. She begins her personal practice by waiting patiently for me to get into an asana, a Sanskrit word for “posture.” Preferably something that requires balance. Then she chooses from a creative repertoire of tricks designed to test my focus, including but not limited to the following:

1. Rub against me, making sure to curl tail into a ticklish place.
2. Put wet nose on me.
3. Drag raspy tongue on me.
4. Wait for empty spot on mat and spread out in it before I can.
5. Drag tail across my face.
6. Chew on hair clip.
7. Sit next to me so I have to move or pet her, depending on how cute she looks.
8. Yowl rather loudly.
9. Pick a fight with one of the other cats in the room.
10. Get up some place high and knock something off (plants work well).
11. Chase something (sparkle balls, moths, dust, shadows, etc.).
12. Scratch on furniture.

Sometimes, Yoga Crasher will take a pragmatic approach (or heed the death threats, however you want to look at it) and jump in my chair for a nice nap. She has ulterior motives for this, of course. As long as I’m on the mat, she gets the chair.

© F.T. McKinstry 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Of Wolves and Paint

I’ve had it in mind for months to do the cover art for an upcoming story in my publisher’s queue. Months of patient and yet diffident motivation. I know nothing. But the part of me driving this doesn’t care about my insecurities. A force of nature, it annihilates the quiet village of my everyday consciousness with all the sensitivity of a plague.

When it’s time, small things become precious. A bag of chocolate chips, a pot of coffee. The yowl of a cat by the half-filled bowl. The birds outside, their feeder getting a little low. That funny chipmunk photo on Facebook. Vacuuming the floor. A nap. Emptying the dishwasher. How engaging and poignant it all is next to the darkness, as if setting that canvas on the easel marks the end of my life.

The darkness is seductive. I put on a playlist entitled “Swords and Sorcery,” a collection of bleak, angry, sublime music that encourages me to pull out my post-apocalyptic paint box and sit here with my head in my hands. All my music sucks under this. All the caps on my paints are cross threaded and gummed up. I have some 30-year old pliers I use to open them. The pliers have a green handle, making them easy to find. I still can’t find them but I enjoy searching because well, I’m not painting yet. Finally, I start squirting paint onto the palette to the clamor of heavy metal and think, “You guys need to shut the hell up so I can concentrate.” But I leave it on.

The sun is trying to come out. It’ll be dark soon. This house is like the inside of a tomb, in winter. Plants crowd the windows with silent desperation, dreaming of spring. Maybe I should turn off this self-obsessed music and think nice thoughts. Go clean the fishtank and water the plants with the green-brown tasty water. That would cheer them up. The bag of chocolate chips is still on the table between me and the fishes. Forget it. Sun’s out now. Plants are fine, fishes are fine, and nice thoughts are meaningless.

My painting is still waiting. Cats come in, cats go out. There are too many shadows and the lights aren’t dispelling them. Cats see into the Otherworld; one might think they’d step up and help me out a little. But it doesn’t bother them. Me, I can no longer tell the difference between the real shadows and the ones in my mind. There isn’t one.

This is worse than writing, it really is. Ok, no it’s not. Yes, it is, this is a lot worse.

No it’s not. But I’m doing this now. Sort of. It’s so easily romanticized, that crossbow tension between yearning and ennui. Since when did suffering become romantic? I suppose it’s better than some manufactured New Age metaphor of smearing oil paint onto an empty surface. I don’t need to be pressured to see this in a lofty way. I’d rather be annihilated.

Probable Cover Art, by F.T. McKinstryOk. Enough abstractions. Pick up the brush. No, not that brush, the other one, the one I haven’t trashed yet. Paint the wolf first, he’s the hardest. Let darkness fall, the wind blow and the rain splatter against the house. It hurts, it’s bleeding. I’m going to die. I can’t do this. Put the paint on the canvas. It looks horrible. Keep painting. It’ll come together, it always does. This wants to happen. It’s ok.

It’s all ok.

 
© F.T. McKinstry 2012. All Rights Reserved.

The Reflecting Pool

I see creativity as a reflecting pool. We gaze into the darkness and something appears on the surface, reflected by the light. The water is mostly unseen, rendering this process not only mysterious but also unnerving. To my mind, seeing a slavering monster is less uncomfortable than seeing nothing at all. The monster has form, at least.

I have a penchant for the darkness beneath the reflection. When I write or paint, I stare right into it, past the images, past the lily pads and the ripples on the surface, past what makes sense. My hands shake and my heart pounds. The archers man the walls in the middle of the night. But the self is much greater than the sum of its parts. It creates them.

Writing fantasy is my ultimate mirror, a way to explore the paradox of darkness and light through worlds, characters, places, and events. I tend to spin up stories that deal with the nature of the pool itself, beings and ideas that live in fairy tales, myths, and legends. Here are some variations on a theme.

Lone Wolf, by F.T. McKinstryIn the Ostarin Mountains, it is said, only wizards and hunters know the true meaning of darkness. – From The Hunter’s Rede

This was the first line I put down in this tale. I didn’t really understand what it meant; I had to write the book before it came into focus (which it’s still doing, by the way). It’s a simple enough idea on the surface: a wizard brings light from the darkness; and a hunter—local vernacular for an assassin—brings light into the darkness. The void is the common denominator. But that tells us nothing about the void, let alone its true meaning.

It cost the hero of this story quite a bit of trouble to figure this out, and he bears the skills of both a hunter and a wizard. Perhaps that gave him an advantage, though his shortcomings were every bit as powerful. That’s usually how it goes. The brightest light casts the darkest shadow.

Like a cat, the heart sees in the dark where the mind is blind. This is where the simple explanations end. The heart is connected to everything. It knows every thread in the cosmic tapestry and one must learn, often under great distress, to hear the whispers, subtle as they are. Like a force of nature, the heart does not particularly care what structures are destroyed to clear the ground for seedlings. This happens individually and collectively, in real worlds and imaginary ones. The darkness is terrifying because we can’t see what’s happening there until it comes into the light.

The void is the source. And that is a mystery.

Stars and Sea, by F.T. McKinstryThe forces of the sea give rise to imagination, which reflects them according to the nature and disposition of the perceiver. The sea itself is undifferentiated and without bias. – From The Gray Isles

The sea. What an awesome metaphor for the vastness and mystery of the unconscious self. As if the heart of every conscious being in the universe took shape in time and space to show us its nature. I focused on this without thinking, and came up with the fey progeny of a god and an immortal sea serpent, a child hidden in a mortal body and fraught with a restless heart indeed. It didn’t whisper. It clutched him by the head and shouted.

Here, metaphor and reality became one. A legend can abandon, isolate, or even kill. It isn’t real but it is and the sea, being a natural realm of mystery, passion and the perils of the unseen, can appear as anything: dreams, monsters, witches, assassins. Like the seemingly indifferent forces of the heart in its movement towards expression and illumination, the sea is bottomless.

When one is born of the sea, it will protect even as it destroys to bring forth life.

Echinacea, by F.T. McKinstryGardens are made of darkness and light entwined. – From The Winged Hunter

A girl recalls her lost mother’s words in a moment of crisis, when her beautiful garden is frozen dead by a roguish wizard who disturbed the balance of the seasons. While writing that frightening scene, it occurred to me that the balance can only be disturbed—or preserved—because light and dark are one.

If you want to see this in action, watch nature. In full bloom, vibrant with life, a garden is a wonderful thing of the light. Look more closely and you’ll see the threads of darkness: a leaf chewed clean by a caterpillar, a flower withering after its bloom, a tender seedling returning to the earth because it didn’t get enough sun. Roots find the darkness; rain and decay nourishes them. The cat catches a bird. The big spider in the blackberry patch snares a dragonfly.

Soon this cycle expands, and a larger one includes it. Late in the summer, the shadows start to change. Like a sigh at the end of a long day, the heavy boughs on the trees and the flourishing canopies of brush and perennials turn inward with a kind of longing. These forces are implacable. Try to start a tulip bulb from dormancy, or place a cheery annual in a window over a long winter. You can hear them pine for the void—and likely as not, they’ll return to it despite your mothering, like souls needing rest in a cold grave.

In the fall, I clean out my gardens with sad, cold intent, like some votary of the Destroyer. It’s like weeding in the larger spiral. I take it all down into the dark and when the earth is bare, I grieve for a few days. But in the gray and white silence of a long winter, when my gardens are but a dream, I feel them waiting.

 
© F.T. McKinstry 2012. All Rights Reserved.