Creative Living 3: Jonathan Carroll

January 17th, 2009

Jonathan Carroll possesses one of the most singular voices in contemporary fiction. If I were presented with ten white-bound, untitled novels, I could spot the Jonathan Carroll book within three pages every time.   Written in precise, fluid prose, Carroll’s novels depict a meticulously realistic world in which people live out incomplete and unsatisfying lives while, around them, dogs talk, time telescopes, and a ghost prepares an elaborate meal for the living woman with whom the ghost has fallen in love, knowing full well that the woman won’t be able to see the feast.  Carroll’s The Ghost in Love is one of my favorite books of 2008, but I also loved The Land of Laughs, Outside the Dog Museum, Sleeping in Flame, Bones of the Moon, and others.  His brilliant 2001 novel, The Wooden Sea, was named a New York Times Notable Book.  Born in New York, Carroll has lived for years in Vienna.

One of the questions people frequently ask is do I ever get writer’s block and if so, what do I do about it?  Luckily I’ve never had that gruesome beast but I do have some thoughts about it, and those thoughts run into the idea of creativity in general.

I love watching TV documentaries about nature/animal preserves in Africa.  Particularly the ones that feature the way game wardens live there.  Inevitably these hardy people have one thing in common — they adopt strays.  Sometimes it’s a baby rhino whose mother was shot by poachers, a one-legged ostrich, or the astonishing Jessica the hippo in South Africa.  Watching how these animals have become a part of the game warden’s household is a joy.  They wander in and out of the house, they’re fed (sometimes) in the kitchen, they constantly get underfoot and are treated like beloved pests rather than man-eating lions.  I also like the way they pair off in strange ways — the baby rhino is best friends with the baby ostrich, the bull terrier dogs adopting Jessica the hippo as their sister and sleeping next to her on the porch every night.  All of this is not unlike the famous Hicks painting, THE PEACEABLE KINGDOM.

But there is one thing I have noticed about all of these people.  No matter where they live and what kinds of animals live with them, they always leave the doors and windows of their house open.  It took a while to dawn on me why this was so, but when it did the realization hit like a hammer blow.  These are wild animals.  They may sleep on the couch, drink out of the toilet, or share a bowl of puppy kibble with three dogs.  But they are wild animals.  As long as the human beings leave their doors and windows open, these animals come and go as they please.  They feel free — they determine where they want to be.  But if the doors were closed I am sure sooner or later that animal would feel trapped and all hell would break lose.  They have befriended their human family but are not part of it.  They are separate and must always be treated so.  If they are at any time closed in, their true natures roar out and they show their teeth, or worse.

I like to write.  I have always considered writing my friend. We sit down together in the morning and do our job.   But (and this is a big but) if my friend Writing (notice the capital W) says not today because I’d rather go for a walk, or coffee, or nothing at all, I say fine — no work today.  If that extends to a week, then so be it.  Like the wild animals living so oddly but comfortably in the gamekeeper’s house on the Serengeti Plain, Writing stays friendly to me so long as I let him come and go as he pleases.   If he doesn’t want to stay in the house he walks out and I do something else like read a book or go to the movies.  I never, ever grab Writing by the neck and say you sit back down here and go to work.   I would never treat a friend like that, nor would I treat a tiger like that.  So why treat the thing I love as much as my creative drive like that?

I believe people get writer’s block a lot of the time because they panic when the flow stops.  Then they run around the house shutting the doors and windows, trying to keep their creativity inside and at work.  Bad idea.  I do think that if they were just to get up and walk away from their work for however long, a lot of their problems would solve themselves.  Some of you might say yeah but I’ve been blocked for six months — what about that?  I’d posit that it’s likely some of the block, maybe not all, is because you are scared and trying to close all your windows.  Which in turn has scared your Writing and made IT panicky.  You get my drift.  Of course there are exceptions but I really do believe the greatest trick to either get going in the morning or after a long dry spell or even trying to conquer the fearsome mountain of “I don’t know where to go from here” is . . . to get up and walk away.  At least until you feel comfortable or in the best-case scenario, until you are eager to get back to your desk and work again.  Because at that point your friend Writing or Creativity says okay, I’m rested.  I’m ready to go.  I’m so happy you left me alone to walk out in the world a while to recharge my batteries.

14 Responses to “Creative Living 3: Jonathan Carroll”

  1. Suzanna Says:

    Although I am not a writer who has to deal with writer’s block there are ways in which I do relate to the problem of feeling blocked creatively, and so I deeply appreciate the sensible, gentle approach you have toward your craft. Thinking of your creativity as something that should be treated as a good friend who should never be forced to do something it is not willing to do is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Thank you.

  2. Lisa Kenney Says:

    What a beautiful analogy! I’ve been enjoying Jonathan Carroll’s thoughts on his blog for months now and I’ve just ordered THE GHOST IN LOVE. I am quite certain I will love it.

  3. fairyhedgehog Says:

    I’ve heard a lot of “apply bum to seat” type of advice but that doesn’t seem to work for me. This seems a lot more helpful. There’s something about holding onto creativity lightly that works better for me than trying to clutch on to it. I tend to think of it as staying playful: the idea of my creativity as a wild animal is a new one and I rather like it.

  4. Thomas Says:


    Thanks so much for your post. It brought up a few things of special interest to me. The nature of inspiration being one thing. Another thing being allowing oneself to, not turn the creative process off, but rather keep it on the backburner until the thoughts and words take the sort of shape that is ready to be put on paper. I like the concept of not forcing the process but wait it out, let creativity drive you rather than you drive it.

    A similar line of thought is the issue of what time of the day the creative process is the most potent. Some prefer to write in the morning, others at night. Personally, my very best Nobel-Pulitzer-worthy strokes of genius happen late at night when it’s quiet and dark, but unfortunately I have the bad habit of not writing them down, reasoning that if they are of any real value I will remember them in the morning anyway (which I rarely do). To me, that is another analogy to what you were describing about leaving doors and windows open. When the hustle and bustle of the day is over, the defenses tend to come down and the thoughts move more freely.

    Creativity is our friend. It damn well better be, as it is a part of ourselves, and if we are writers (at whatever level) then that is where our output comes from. I like how you name your creativity “Writing”, with a capital W. It is not unlike Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away, naming his only friend, the volley ball, Wilson. Sometimes having invisible friends is a good sign of mental health.

    This was a refreshing look at creativity from someone who obviously writes at a high level. More so than many of the assembly line writers of airport novels out there, who churn out half a dozen titles every year. Nora Roberts supposedly writes eight hours a day, seven days a week, and clearly doesn’t have the time to stop and listen to her friend “Writing”. Whether that impedes her creative flow or not is unclear to me. The jury is still out. But more importantly, it shows that there are different ways of getting the job done and that your way is acceptable as well. You obviously have the bibliography to prove it.
    This has made me curious about your fiction. Off to the book store I go.


  5. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Thank you, Jonathan. Yes, Tim, this was more than worth the wait! I love your analogy of leaving the doors and windows open. Unfortunately, I lost my temper with my friend and told her to take a hike, THEN I shut and locked the door and boarded over the windows. Then I spent several months wondering why she doesn’t call or write to me. I think the first step to find my way back is to open up the house, let her back in and say “Sorry I’ve been so ridiculous! Please come back in, sit down and have some tea with me!

  6. Larissa Says:

    Before I start: Thomas: I really enjoy reading your comments and questions and ideas. Keep up the great discussion starters!

    And now to the post:

    This strikes me in two very different ways-only one of which I’m really going to expand on for right now.

    I appreciate that there is someone on the playing field that supports sitting with the work and letting the space between creating periods be a guide. I know from experience that forcing anything tends to only cause panic and stress. That’s where dumb luck can get some people through. But overall, I think it’s about not just the analogy Johnathan made but also the meditative state that Stephen mentioned. The catch is that it’s really easy to go from listening and waiting to ignoring and procrastinating.

    I know that I’m learning the art of keeping the doors and windows open and keeping a positive energy without the taint of fear of failure or pressure or criticism of how long it’s taking me or whatever.

    It’s a good struggle-and only as hard as I make it-but still a struggle.

  7. usman Says:

    Thanks Jonathon — for saying that creativity might be work, but not forced labor. What a relief.

    But, tell me, how much of our writing decisions should be dictated, or at least directed by the market. For example, there is a view that omniscient POV is a relic of the 19th century OR the first person POV is not popular nowadays — that the readers want an intimate 3rd person. This is one example, there are many others doing the rounds. (Personally I like to read all POV’s.)

    My second question is: When selecting a POV for our novel, what elements dictate this choice? Whether to write in 3rd or 1st, should be more than an instinctive decision. Right? If so what pointers are there, if at all. I have recently started my new WIP, and am uncertain what POV suits it.


  8. Dana King Says:

    I love this post, in no small part because it dovetails with something I have believed for some time.

    A writer (I forget who; could have been Stephen King) once said writer’s block is what happens when you try to be a better writer than you are. I think that’s pretty close. Your example is similar, but more eloquent, if interpreted as “writer’s block is what happens when you make unreasonable demands on your Creativity.”

    I hope I haven’t extrapolated too much, but, to me, that is what happens when someone tries to lock their Creativity in the house with them. It must come and go as it pleases.

    Thank you.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, everyone — Glad you liked this post so much. I thought you would.

    I’ve e-mailed Jonathan Carroll to see whether he wants to respond to any of these comments but haven’t heard back yet. I’m just happy he wrote the original post, although of course it would be great to have him drop back in and share his reaction to your comments.

    Time will tell.

  10. Thomas Says:

    While we wait to hear back from Jonathan, which I know we all would love to do, let me share a few thoughts that I wish I could take credit for but am not bold enough to even try. Perhaps it can help to keep that proverbial and creative ball rolling.

    Hemingway comes to my mind when discussing the nature of inspiration and work schedules (however mundane it may sound, discipline is at the heart of the matter). Old Ernest, however complicated as a person, had a pretty basic outlook on the craft of writing. As we all know, the Hemingway style of writing is treacherous indeed, as it makes us think writing is easy as long as you use short sentences and few syllables. Many writers have tried to copy his style and failed miserably (myself included). Much can be said about his way of writing but for these purposes, a few of Hemingway’s writing rules come to mind. I thought they were all related to what we’re discussing so please bear with me.

    Hemingway believed, among other things, that a good writer should:

    * Write slowly (my comment: As in his style, every word has meaning and superfluous words get deleted. Creativity doesn’t mean poetry, but rather ways to express much with less.)

    * Work in isolation, preferably in the morning (my comment: Tim writes in public areas and appears to be going around the clock; I am an evening person and, well, let’s just leave it at that. What is clear is that our personal differences have a direct impact on what we produce.)

    * Master your subject (my comment: Who runs out of material if you have already mastered what you write about? Obviously, writers of SF and Harry Potter face different challenges.)

    * When you’re done for the day, leave all writing alone and let your subconscious work on it until the next day (my comment: As an analogy to Jonathan’s doors and windows – Hemingway would say that they never really close; we just don’t consciously think about them all the time.)

    * Stop writing when you’re at full speed, in the middle of a scene or even in the middle of a sentence, so that you can easily pick it up again the next day without staring at a blank sheet of paper wondering where to go next (my comment: To me, this is the best rule of all but also the hardest one to enforce. It’s not always easy to stop when you get into “flow mode” and your precious muse is at her most lovely.)

    Please forgive me if I give the impression of someone who tries to lecture people far more accomplished than his humble self, but these are all great ideas and principles of writing that I think, however familiar they may be, deserve to be brought up again and again as examples of mastery of craft, inspiration, and creativity. Hemingway, himself, promoted learning from the best writers out there and that is what we try to do.

    On a more Hallmark-like note, let me just say that finding Tim’s website and learning from all the information it already contains, and that which keeps being added, is on my personal list of 2008 blessings. Another general blessing: Yes, we can!


    Ps. Larissa, you are much too kind and I appreciate the comment. There is a fine line between inquisitive and obnoxious. Nuff said. 🙂

  11. Larissa Says:

    Thomas: Whatever. 😛

    I think that those are all really cool ideas and thoughts-I actually tried the leave it in the middle of a sentence bit though and I find that it drives me crazy. With a capital K. I either end up coming back five minutes later or, worse, I walk away and then come back and can’t get back into the groove. I’m much more of a thought completion oriented person. I do it with my paintings too.

    There’s something interesting about that actually-the mood I’m in dictates the type of work I do. Sounds really basic. And it is, except that for example, when I work on a painting I have to complete one train of thought or one idea first, because if I come back to it in the middle, my mood and tone will have changed and therefore the painting will change.

    Which isn’t always bad but I find that if things are in a realized state when I walk away, it makes returning not only more pleasant but it also gives me more to work with because I see where I’m at and can make bigger creative decisions.

    I’m also an evening person. (c:

    As far as mastering the subject-I think that when Hemingway was writing that whole idea had a much different meaning. Things and topics have become much more organic now-the glass ceilings are being scooted higher and higher with every development so I think that we need to focus on mastering ourselves instead-the subject matter will fall into place. It’s a loaded thing to propose-“mastering ourselves” but the theory is right even if the execution does get a little lost in the warp speed execution of everything today and the general eye-brow arching that happens when people start talking about abstract ideas like that.

    I have to go master my kitchen now…I sort of just made a huge mess…(c:

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, I’m just going to sneak in here to echo Larissa’s thanks to Thomas and extend them to all of you.

    I think Larissa makes a good point about the fine line between listening/waiting and procrastinating. I personally work daily because it’s my choice: I’d rather write a bunch of bad words than no words at all. But that’s just me. (Also, writing is rarely really a chore for me — I love the act of doing it.

    For Usman, since I don’t know whether Jonathan will stop by again, the six books of his I have on my shelves are pretty evenly divided between first person and more-or-less omniscient third person.

    I also think the Hemingway idea about stopping at a point where you know where you’re going next (if not necessarily in mid-sentence) is a good one. Once the words start to flow onto the page, the tension that can precede day’s session usually subsides, and that hint is a good way to get those first words down painlessly.

    Like Dana, I love the image of the open doors and windows and treating your creativity with both affection and respect.

    And Thomas, thanks for the very kind words about the site. Your participation is highly valued.

  13. usman Says:

    Thomas, Your last post was helpful, especially your own interpretation of Hemingways Rules, in light of your experiences. Thanks.

  14. Sylvia Says:

    I recently wrote a bit of flash fiction about beating up my Muse, now I feel really guilty.

    I’m a procrastinator and I know it. So yes, I do have to make myself sit down and get to work.

    However, that doesn’t mean that I have to write brilliant prose on demand and that’s what I take away from Jonathan Carroll’s vibrant description of treating Writing as a guest.

    To insist that the words flow every time I sit down would cause me to clam up very rapidly. I do insist that I write down SOME (not-so-brilliant) words (to be worked with or rewritten later) or outline what I think needs to happen next or at the very least find an issue where research would help and read up. Some progress is made.

    If I didn’t do this, I would spend my life on the sofa, reading books, waiting for Writing to get so sick and tired of waiting for me that she would resort to hitting me over the head with the dictionary saying, are you going to pay me some attention or WHAT?

    I’m realising quietly that my social skills are maybe somewhat lacking.

    Sometimes I sit down to write one thing and I keep writing this OTHER thing which isn’t the thing that I want to be writing and I try to put it to the side and it just keeps niggling at me. And really, if I think of Writing as a guest, I am being rather unbearably rude aren’t I? An insufferable conversationalist: “Yeah, yeah, Martians, right, whatever, but what I was SAYING, before you changed the subject, was…”

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