Tarot and the Craft of Writing

By Cynthia Ray

The Tarot is a symbolical, archetypical, pictorial description of the way things work.  It is both personal and universal.  The Tarot also outlines the ins and outs of creating and writing a story, the experience of writing, and the required tools and competencies. There are 21 major trump and here I will briefly illustrate their connection to the creative process of the writer.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 001 The Fool #0

0.  Writing a novel is a path that only a fool would begin, and only a fool could     complete.  The Fool is an androgynous figure setting out on the journey of creating a story and carries a bag of past experience to draw from. The dog represents the companion muse who will accompany this Fool on his/her journey, but the Fool has their attention upon the higher goal, not paying attention to the whopping big cliff s/he is about to step off of.  Here we go!

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 002 The Magician #1

  1. To begin anything, and especially a novel, one must have desire and will.  Almost like magic, what one chooses to focus on and put attention upon, fueled by desire, is that which grows, represented by the Magicians garden of roses and lilies.  Bringing focused attention and concentration to bear on the task is the gift of the Magician.  The writers’ tools sit upon the table.  The wand is will, the cup is imagination, the sword is action, while the coin represents the final form.   It will take a strong will, fueled by imagination to take the necessary actions to bring ideas into a completed story that is perfect and beautifully formed.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 013 High Priestess #2

  1. The High Priestess is the door to the great subconscious, both the personal and the collective, universal subconscious that Jung speaks of, from which all ideas and inspirations arise. The water from her gown flows through all the cards, ever present, and informs, shapes and nourishes every word that pours from the writers’ pen.  The moons that crown her hair stand for the waxing and waning and rhythm of the creative process.  Expect ups and downs.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 016 The Empress #3

  1. The pregnant Empress is the writers’ wonderful, weird, creative Imagination. She takes the tiny seeds planted by the Magician and brings forth a riot of form and ideas in her wild garden.  The mind of the writer produces many various and sundry ideas for the novel, many complex characters with which to people it, and revels in the pure audacity of the potential and possibilities.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 017 The Emperor #4

  1. The Emperor stand for reason, order and form. Here the writer begins to organize potential plots into an outline, and even writers who are outline adverse, must conceive of an orderly progression of the story that will lead to a satisfactory conclusion.  The Emperor is associated with vision and sight, and every writer needs a coherent vision and line of sight to where the story is going, and how to get there.  The Emperor is a visionary map maker.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 018 The Teacher #5

  1. The Teacher is the writers own inner voice. The key to this step is finding and listening to that voice.  Critique groups are helpful and necessary, advice from the well-known authors and craft books are a good foundation, and practice and study all lend themselves to mastery of the craft of writing, but the only true guide is the writers own unique VOICE that must come through the story, told in his or her own unique way.  The path to finding that voice is trial and error and ever-vigilant practice of listening.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 019 The Lovers #6

  1. The letter Zain associated with this card means sword, and here the writer must begin the process of cutting away anything that does not lead the story forward. This cutting away requires a willingness to remove, without regret, whatever does not serve the higher purpose of the story.  The Lovers also stand for discrimination, which is related to the sense of smell.  The writer must sniff out the true core and essential elements of the story, versus the “fluff’, sometimes referred to as the writers’ “darlings”, that must be jettisoned.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 020 The Chariot #7

  1. The Chariot stands for Victory, and the conquest of illusion. The war a writer wages is an inner struggle, wrestling with inner demons and voices that tell the writer they are not good enough, that the story is valueless, and to surrender, to give up. The Charioteer is our inner Self, who hold the reins of mind and emotions and leads us over a rough and difficult road to triumph over those illusions-a victory that allows the writer to continue on the quest, tapping into the desire and will.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 021 Strength #8

  1. Strength of Purpose. This lion is not a docile, submissive force, but a wild and powerful energy that must be tamed and harnessed, and its power is the writers’ potential creativity.  This creativity must be channeled through the application of consistent, habitual effort.  Just as the physical body builds strength by the habit of daily exercise, consistent patterns and writing practices are required to produce meaningful results.  A strong writer is a consistent writer.  This process is represented by the many leaves and roses draped around the neck of the lion.  The infinity symbol shows that the work of writing is accomplished hour by hour, day by day, month by month, although ideas and inspirations arise outside of time.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 022 The Hermit #9.jpg

  1. Writing is a solitary activity, and often feels like a solitary climb up a steep mountain. The writer must take time, and create space, to withdraw from the world and write. The Hermit stands alone on a dark mountain, showing the way, and represents all the writers that have gone before, accomplished a work, and all the wonderful stories that shine their light into the world.  The stories that inspired the writer to add to the treasures that we turn to when we are lost, when we are grieving, when we are curious.  The Hermit is also the writer her/himself at the end of every chapter, looking forward, looking back.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 003 Wheel of Fortune #10

  1. The Wheel of Fortune is movement, rotation, involution and evolution. In this stage, the writer is  fully engaged  in the story as it evolves and changes and emerges from the mind of the writer.  The novel is on its way to manifesting through its many phases.  There are re-writes, and re-thinking of plot lines, and characters motivations.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 004 Justice #11

  1. All the mistakes of plotting, character development, writing style will show up her to be judged and elements either found wanting, directed back for another spin of the wheel, or shown to be worthy.  Another meaning of this card is action, and for each action there is always an equal reaction – it is cause and effect.  Either the actions and descriptions and responses of the characters work or they don’t. Here the writer weighs her story on the scales, looking for wholeness in the way all of the parts fit together, assuring that the story is balanced, and that it draws the reader into its heart, and evokes response.  There is no punishment or damnation this analytical weighing of the story and its parts.  It is time once again to use the sword of discernment that we first took up in the Lovers card, only at a higher level.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 005 Suspended Man #12

  1. The state associated with the Hanged Man or Suspended Man is Silence. All previous ways of thinking are suspended in this quietness as we pause and leave judgement behind.  In this suspension of judgement and everything the writer thought about the book before, there is clarity.  Clarity of the deeper themes, purposes and connections that lift the writer up out of the words on the pages in order to see, feel, and know the soul of the book.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 006 Transition #13

  1. The real meaning of Transition (Death) is change, motion and transformation. The end of one cycle is the beginning of another.  The revelations, new connections and ideas that were revealed in the suspended state lead the writer to further transformation of the book.  It might mean that the writer rearranges major parts of the novel, or even starts over but is ultimately able to bring their story to completion.  With a completed first draft in hand, the writer has indeed accomplished much, which has brought him/her to bare bones of themselves, poured out into the chapters.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 007 Temperance #14.jpg

  1. Metal is tempered with fire and water, to make it stronger. Here, testing and trials prove the worth of the writers’ words and insights bring further refinements.  There are many ways to test the and temper the book; beta readers, critique groups and the necessary and helpful editor.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 008 The Deceiver #15

  1. The Deceiver (Devil) is a form of self-doubt, and the inner voices which bedevil the writer with half-truths, deceptions and lies. The same inner demons and illusions were faced earlier, but they return as the writer begins to receive feedback from editors and readers.  If the writer turns their attention and locus outward, instead of following their own inner compass they will find themselves lost and unable to move forward.  The figures in the card have chains around their necks, but when they choose to, they can simply lift them off and walk away from their self-imposed bondage.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 009 The Tower #16

  1. The flash of lightening that strikes the Tower comes from the Hermits Lantern, bringing inspiration that topple old ideas and concepts. The toppled figures are also the inner demons of the previous card, which are vanquished by the flash of truth and dispelling of illusion. The card is associated with Awakening and exciting intelligence.  The writer experiences the excitement of discovering a hidden theme, or a new way of expressing an idea, the discovery of a vein to mine in the book that was previously hidden, and heady freedom from the chains of the past.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 010 The Star #17

  1. The Star is linked with Meditation and Revelation. At this point, after many iterations, the writer is working on a final draft of their book.  The book is part of the writer’s consciousness and both the conscious and subconscious are working on it day and night.  Even when the writer is not writing, the work continues to percolate, and in the rest, the in-between times, even in sleep, gifts of insight are given.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 011 The Moon #18

  1. The Moon represents Organization. Organization has been at play all along as the story unfolded, but now the final changes to the book are made. The Moon also represents rhythm and cycles, and the ups and downs that are always at play in the writing process.   The final version of the book is nearly complete.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 012 The Sun #19

  1. The Sun shines it light upon the writer here. The intelligence associated with the Sun is Collective intelligence, which mean to bring together, to combine to unify and synthesize. It brings all the lessons of all the cards together in this final form. The writer experiences joy and satisfaction as the book is brought to conclusion.  There should be dancing.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 014 Judgement #20.jpg

  1. Judgement implies completion, termination. Here the final edits are made in preparation for publication and all is made ready for the books release into the world.

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 015 The World #21.jpg

  1. Publication! At last the book enters the World as a published book!  The letter of this card means signature, and the story and its unique signature takes its place among all of the stories that have been told, to enter the mind and hearts of mankind.  There may be tours and promotions and blogs, but eventually the journey begins again as the writer sets pen to the next volume.

 

For those interested in delving into the deeper meanings of the Tarot, you may be interested in my ongoing virtual classes on the topic.  Find out more here:

This website is also a great resource for exploring more about the Tarot.

 

Paper Clip by John Burridge

Today on ShadowSpinners we welcome John Burridge, who brings us a tale of mystery, inspiration, and not-so-ordinary objects.

I linger outside the supermarket where I sometimes write.  The hot sky is the color of ash, as if someone has smeared the remains of a BBQ pit across heaven.  The breeze makes it seem like the grey smudge above hides rain, but the forecast is for heat and an insulating inversion.  I’m tempted to make this a drinking night–the day’s been frustrating–but I opt to try to write instead.  A cold blast of air-conditioning hits my face as I walk inside.  

I stalk through the aisles, try to find something that will inspire me to write, purchase some healthy-ish snacks, then head upstairs.  The table I normally write at in the supermarket’s mezzanine is occupied by an older lady with the props of homelessness:  an over-burdened cart, which might have been an IV rack in a past life, its thick grey wheels signaling that it’s possibly from a hospital or nursing home, with full, plastic rival-market shopping bags hanging from it.

I cast about the mezzanine and end up at another table; like all the others, it’s a cool, dark, and highly polished sheet of marble or artisanal concrete, flecked with mica glinting like stars.

I set up my tablet, plug in headphones against the inevitable wailing children, cell-phone-using psychiatry patients, and estranged roommates.  I type–hoping that this time the words will flow like a spring in an oasis; like the aurora borealis at midnight; like a pod of dolphins dancing among the waves; like lover’s kisses along the nape, around the hollow of the neck, and over those places loved best.

Instead, I write ten or so lines of bad Oscar Wilde pastiche and maybe three lines about the Prince of Lyres standing over splinters of his instrument in front of the still locked gates of the underworld.  Gee, thanks, subconscious.  Tell me something I don’t already know.

Then the children, their mothers, the cell-phone users, and irked roommates parade by my foreign workspace–each one stomping the floor in just the right place to make my borrowed workspace tremble.  This would never happen at my regular table, which is not on the path to the market’s restrooms.

The old woman–pushing her cart before her–joins the parade, makes for the elevator, and exits the mezzanine.

By this time, I’m thinking this isn’t going to be a good writing night and I should just go meet up with my ex-critique group for a drink–but, it’s still early, and, actually, I should be saving my money.  A math tutoring session at the next table over decides me that if I’m going to not-write doggerel, I may as well do it in a better setting.  Besides, an attendant with antiseptic spray and cleaning rag has swooped over the vacated tables.  I scoop up snacks, pack, tablet, and keyboard, and I walk–headphones still on–to my regular spot.

I get to the table and there in the dark-sky-and-mica-star center of it is a paperclip.  Which slaps me back in time.  Weeks ago last June, at an elder-stateswoman-writer’s memorial, someone told a story about paperclips.  A few days before the writer died, the story-teller (an atheist) and the writer were joking around about supposed afterlives and randomly came up with the word “paperclip” as the message the writer would send as proof if she found herself in heaven.  The day after, the story-teller, in a moment of synchronicity, inexplicably found two paperclips–which he presented to the memorial gathering–linked, in his pocket.

I pick up this singleton paperclip.  It’s steel or some other silvery metal, with little grooves worked into the loops for extra gripping friction.

What meaning does one assign a paperclip–which may have been left behind by an elderly and possibly homeless woman when she left, pushing her belongings and errands out into the hot evening with a setting sun hidden by smoke and ash?

Paperclips hold pages together–paper planes which touch but do not connect.  Maybe the paperclip says, “Hold together;” but hold what?  There’s nothing currently in it more substantial than thought.

I rotate the paperclip in my fingers.  It’s not perfectly flat.  The inner loop of metal is pulled up slightly from the outer loop.  At one point it held together something–a manuscript? a prescription and receipt? a photo and resume?–but holding whatever together has warped it.

I put it down next to my keyboard and stare at it as I type.

Is the shade of a great writer leaving me a paperclip as a sign of encouragement?  Or, is it a reward for sitting with butt in chair and fingers on keyboard instead of slouching against a tavern table with a margarita in my hand?  Or, is it a challenge–write the story this empty paperclip will have to hold together?  Or, is it a message–the writer connects meanings to the actions in the text?  Yeah, right.  “Don’t lose the day job,” would be a more likely message, and I imagine she’d have better uses for manifesting paperclips, like leaving them for her family or people she’d known much longer than our two years’ acquaintance.  Or her agent.

I write all this while staring at the paperclip.  It’s getting late.  Maybe tonight I’ll dream about paperclips.  Maybe I’ll make a shirt that says, “My writer friend went to heaven and all I got was this paperclip.”  Maybe I’ll write a fantasy story about a magician who makes a talisman of paperclips linked together into a necklace:  every paperclip a star, every star a soul, every soul a story.

***

John Burridge writes short stories in the high fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary urban fantasy genres.  His work explores familial relationships, choice, and identity.  A native Oregonian, John lives with his husband, son, and two requisite cats (one fluffy and grey, the other sleek and black).

John is an alumni of the Eugene Wordos, a professional writer’s critique group.  He was an active member from 2001 to 2017, and he chaired or co-chaired their meetings from 2003 onward.

His first professional sale was to Writers of the Future.  Since then, he has garnered a few other sales and many, many rejection slips.  You can read more about him and his publishing history at https://johnburridge.blogspot.com/p/bio-writing-credits.html.

Creativity in General (and in Particular)

by Elizabeth Engstrom

Many of my writer friends engage in a variety of creative endeavors. Some are painters of exquisite artworks. Some sing. Some dance. Some quilt, or do stained glass. I knit and dabble in this and that. But mostly, we write.

Anyone who writes knows the exasperation of the inadequacies of language. With every sentence we write, with every idea we speak, we invite misunderstanding.

It occurs to me that if we had perfect mind-to-mind communications, if we could communicate our thoughts thoroughly—including all history, nuance, and emotion—in a sublime little info packet upload, there would be no need for language.

creativity

If we had no need for language, would our need for a creative outlet vanish?  We would no longer strive to explain, to clarify, to enlighten. We would no longer need to defend, to support, to go to the enormously great lengths we go to in order to express ourselves.

We as a species, would be much the poorer.

Who would we be without the inspirational art, the moving music, the inestimable beauty, the revealing literature that has come from the anguished soul?

We would be bereft.

We might actually discover that we really have nothing to say to one another.

I often say that writers are the keepers of the literature, the chroniclers of our times. But we are much more than that. We are the ones who wrestle with language, endeavoring to explain that which has no explanation, to describe the indescribable, to put motive to that which is inexplicable.

Writers reach deep within themselves to comprehend their inner truth, and then grapple with the insufficient words of language, so that we might express it well enough to touch another’s inner truth. I have been touched many times by the brilliant writings of fearless authors, and have been changed by that interaction. That is my goal as a writer: to touch another. To make a difference.

Clearly, artists of every type spend time in anguish. A friend once told me that it is just as hard to write a bad book as it is to write a good book, and I believe that to be true. In either case, the author suffered to express.

As we go through our days, we might take a moment to appreciate the things that adorn our homes, offices, lives. Every single thing that we see was crafted by someone who put some part of their heart and soul into their work. We take it all for granted, but we should not, lest our work be dismissed as easily.

Patiently Pondering Puddles in Pursuit of Poetry

by Christina Lay

The other morning as I pulled out of my driveway on the way to work, I found myself waiting for a little kid who, squirrel-like, was meandering around in the street right behind my car. I watched him out of my rear view mirror until he was finally far enough away I could continue. Only then did I see what he was doing.  He was going puddle to puddle and jumping in each one, then standing there, transfixed. Maybe field testing his galoshes, or measuring the depths in scientific pursuit, or imagining what it felt like to be a tadpole. Probably delaying arriving at school, much like I delay arriving at work every day.

As I drove away, I flashed back to myself at that age—about seven-ish, I’d guess—and a rainy day on my way home from school. I had to cross a big playing field and that day, the field was more pond than grass. Oblivious to everything else, I wandered back and forth, jumping in puddles, watching the ripples, most likely feeling how cold rain water and wool socks aren’t a good mix and basically having a jolly good time until I heard a car horn beeping. My mom, in a valiant effort to save me from getting soaked in the torrential rains, had driven the five blocks from our house to the end of the field to give me a ride. And there she sat, watching her crazy kid go puddle jumping.

Not much has changed, I’m happy to report. I’m still much more a first-grader in galoshes wandering through the world in questing admiration than a sensible adult who actually arrives at work on time.  But what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with writing?

Not a hell of a lot, except for the fact that it’s April (or was when I started writing this), which means torrential spring rains and poetry. April is National Poetry Month and my first thought as I drove away watching that crazy kid standing in the gutter was that he was seeking out little moments of poetry. A scrap of haiku.

Puddles in the path

How can I not jump when

School, the big nap, waits?

So I’m not a poet. But poetry has always informed my writing and when I want to go deeper into a character’s emotion, or the quality of a setting, or the truth behind a relationship, it’s the quiet moments that I seek out. The feel of rain soaking into socks. The reflection of a hazy sun in a puddle.  The things not said.

I’ve been attending the symphony a lot lately, and one thing I’ve been learning is how to appreciate the silences. The purposeful pause, the breath held. With all those instruments clamoring away to create a glorious noise, the moment of silence can be an extremely powerful thing.  As can a reflection in a puddle.

I am naturally a curmudgeon and the louder things get, the faster, brighter, ruder, and more brutal movies, books and music seem to become, the more I resist. The more I want to be the kid in galoshes, oblivious to all but the simple wonders. Like waiting for a hummingbird’s buzz or the trickle of a stream, it takes more effort these days to hear the silence and notice what is not moving, what is not flashing, blinking, or shouting for our attention.

If your characters are in the middle of a screaming argument, a sudden silence might be much more powerful than a string of obscenities. If your character is racing to battle, the sensation of rain soaking into his boots might give us a better glimpse into his heart and mind than the thunder of cannons and the vision of body parts flying.  If Cinderella is arriving at the ball, having her notice a dandelion sprouting through the cracks in the brickwork might prove more telling than an extended description of the palace.

And then everything can explode. Or not.

As entertainers, we do tend to focus on the grand and exciting moments. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we don’t forget the importance of the threads that hold the crazy quilt of reality together. When the ordinary and divine meet, and we look up from the page, and say “oh”. When we as artists achieve the goal of expressing the inexpressible and using words to say what is beyond words.  That’s poetry, and we could all use a little more of it.

Why is Writing Fiction so Difficult?

by Matthew Lowes

Years ago I taught a creative writing course, and I began the first class by writing a mathematical equation on the board. I suggested that the great difficulties of writing fiction could be understood through this equation. It was partly just a way to shock students into thinking about and seeing something in a new way. But the equation itself was a result of my own inquiry into the question: why is writing fiction so difficult?

At first consideration, it doesn’t seem like it should be. A friend of mine once remarked when I complained about some writing difficulty: “What’s the problem? Just make something up.” And indeed, in some sense this is good advice. He was only joking, but his comment actually helped solve my problem. When all is said and done, we are just making up stories. But like any good lie, you would like it to be believable … and like any good truth, you would like it have an impact. And to do this, you have to keep your story straight.

A piece of fiction may start with a character, a setting, an event, an image, or any number of things or aspects of these things. The story then builds with another thing and another thing and all the interactions and connections of these various elements. For the sake of argument, let’s call each one of these things, be it big or small, a story point.

The first one is easy. Take anything — the queen of a small island that is sinking into the sea … a young artist sent to the front lines of long and futile war … an ancient city on the edge of the desert … a fleeting glimpse into a stranger’s eyes — or just make something up. Like flashes from half-remembered dreams, these points bubble up from the subconscious, and a thousand stories begin to form.

One point, however, does not a story make. You have to add another point and another and another. And not only do the accumulation of points have to build tension and conflict, but they also all have to somehow exist harmoniously with each other. Each point that you add forms another connection, not only with the previous point, but with all previous points. And it turns out you can express this with an equation.

What this shows (I think … I worked this out with some help many years ago) is that for each new point added, the number of connections increases by a number equal to all the previous points. So with two points you have one connection; with three you have three; with four you have six; with seven you have twenty-one; and so on. By the time you reach fifteen points there are over a hundred individual connections. It doesn’t take a math whiz to see that the number of connections increases exponentially as you add more points.

Furthermore, this equation is only accounting for single direct connections to all other story points. If you want to count all possible connections through other story points, the numbers get truly astronomical — mind boggling! But you get the idea. There’s a lot to keep straight as you move forward. Luckily, it seems our minds are somewhat tuned to do this narrative processing work. Nevertheless, in any given story, and especially a novel, there’s a lot to keep track of.

And that’s just the telling a good lie part. If you want to include the good truth part, we’re going to have to add another dimension — a dimension composed of layers, consisting of all these same points on the level of theme, voice, writing, metaphor, character change, plot structure, mythic underpinnings, and so on and so forth, up to and including the ineffable.

That’s why writing fiction is so difficult.

The Magic of Motivation

I teach a Tarot Class on Thursday nights, and in the last class we focused on the Magician.  This is a card that shows us how to be creative, and get things done-it is all about beginning, concentration and will.  In fact, there is a saying that his main magic consists of what he can do just by wanting to do it.   Do you know what you want?

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 002 The Magician #1.jpg

As a writer, I know what I want–to write good, compelling works that will touch the heart and mind of my readers.  But like many writers, I run into snags that get in the way of sitting down and writing on a daily basis.  The magician reminded me that wanting something is only the beginning of the process. While desire is the energy that fuels creation, and is the root of motivation, ongoing motivation is the key to success.

Motivation is defined as:

  1. The general desire or willingness of someone to do something
  2. The condition of being eager to act or work
  3. A force or influence that causes someone to do something.

I love the idea of being eager to act or work.  I want to capture that sense of eagerness and urgency that will drive me to the keyboard, even after I have spent all day working at a computer, even if I am tired, even if I am afraid.

Gretchen Rubin has written an interesting book on the topic of motivation and expectation.  In her book, The Four Tendencies, she describes four motivation profiles.  She suggests that once a person understands how they meet expectations (or not), they are better able to develop strategies that will work for them around motivation and getting things done.  The four tendencies are illustrated here:

four tendencies

If you would like to find out more about the model, and find out what tendency you are, you can take the quiz here.

If you discover that you have the tendency of an Obliger, and are more likely to meet expectations of others than of yourself, then a creativity coach, or a writers group with expectations may work well to motivate you to meet writing goals.

Upholders meet expectations, schedules, and deadlines imposed by themselves or others, and may need to learn to relax a bit to enjoy the process more.

Questioners need to find ways to motivate themselves that make sense to them.  might tell themselves, “Just try it, it’s an experiment.” in order to test a writing schedule, or motivation to write at certain times. One person I know bought a Playmobile Advent calendar, and for every 2000 words written, she allowed herself to open a door.  What a great idea!   That would motivate me, but I might invest in this whiskey advent calendar instead.

Rebels do anything they want to do, but resist any kind of expectations, both from themselves and others, and might have to “trick” themselves into doing what they want to do.  They need flexibility to set their own schedules and habits.  Rebels want to express values through actions, so tying a habit to an important identity (such as successful author) can help.

Perhaps you are a person who already has good writing habits, always meets deadlines, and knows how to motivate yourself and keep yourself motivated.  I would love to hear what works for you when you hit a slump or a tough place that threatened to keep you from meeting your writing goals.

 

A Creative Career Path

by Matthew Lowes

I was recently asked to speak to a high school freshman careers class about my work as a writer and independent game designer. This was at the school where I work, so many student were surprised that I had this other life writing fiction and games. I talked a little about my creative work, about The Labyrinth of Souls tarot card game, and about my novel, The End of All Things, which just came out. Then I answered a series of questions they had put together, which I’ll reproduce here. If there are any young people out there interested in pursuing creative work, here’s an inside look at how that’s unfolded for me … and few tidbits of advice.

1. How did you discover your love/passion for this activity or line of work? Is your career different than what you wanted to do when you were in high school?

I played with writing stories at a pretty young age, so that was there from early on. I read a lot of comic books when I was little. I also tried to tackle things way beyond me at the time. Actually my failure to read and comprehend The Iliad at around the age of ten may have turned me off from reading for a while. Nevertheless, at some point, everybody who loves books finds a book that really resonates with them at that moment in their life, and for me that was The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, which I read in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school.

My junior and senior year high school English teacher really helped solidify my interest in writing and literature. He was very demanding and a hard grader. He would never accept work even so much as an hour late and had the expectation that we would produce publishable quality writing. This really impressed upon me the importance of editing and always meeting your deadlines, which is incredibly important for a professional writer. But it was his love for literature and writing that helped me realize my own passion for the work I do now.

As far as games, that goes back a long ways too. When I was around nine years old my brother and I started playing Dungeon & Dragons, and I played a lot of roleplaying games right up until around middle school. A few years ago I got interested in games again, and since I spent the last twenty years or so working on writing, it wasn’t long before I was writing my own games. Games combine everything I love about fiction and narratives with math and logic. It’s a wonderful balance between creative and the analytical elements of thought.

2. How long did you consider turning your passion into an income before you went for it?

I wanted to be a writer, and really started writing with that in mind, when I was a freshman in college. I tried submitting a few stories almost right away, but got more serious about it a few years after I graduated from college.

3. What kind of schooling/training/qualifications is required in order to do your job?

There are no official requirements, but the unofficial requirements are vast. One must have passion, determination, and perhaps most importantly, vision. What I mean by vision is you have to have something to say, not in the sense that you have an opinion or a belief or a point of view, but more like you have an image of something you want to create.

I have a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master degree in teaching, but school is only a starting place for learning. A formal education and teacher can take you only so far. If you wish to excel, you must take it upon yourself to educate yourself about every aspect of what you’re doing. You must take complete responsibility for your knowledge and skills.

4. How long did it take to go through the training to do your job?

My whole life.

5. Is this career what you expected it to be?

Nothing is ever what you expect it to be. That’s what makes life so interesting. Everything you think you know about life and living now comes from a particular point of view that is shaped by the situations you find yourself in. Those situations and that point of view will change continuously throughout your life. Perhaps one day you will come to a place where you have no point of view whatsoever. But that is another conversation.

6. What do you enjoy most about your career? What is the best part of your job?

I enjoy pursuing my creative impulses. I enjoy taking an idea or vision and turning it into something concrete that others might find enjoyable, interesting, or inspiring.

7. What adventures/memorable moments have you had?

There is a wonderful satisfaction in finishing a large project you have invested a lot of time and energy into. I spent some twelve years writing a trilogy of fantasy novels, with a total of around 300,000 words, or some 1000 pages. When I finally got to the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last chapter of the last book, there was an indescribable feeling of triumph. I hope everybody can experience something like that in their life. Those books are actually not yet published yet, but when they are that will be another memorable moment. Every project I complete, whether a short story, a game, or a novel, is like that to some degree.

8. What is the most challenging part of your career? If you could change one thing about your job what would it be?

One must be prepared to work long hours, months, and years, potentially without any encouragement, validation, praise, or income. That has been a challenge. There was a long period in my life where I would have given anything to have the time and resources to devote myself full time to my creative work. But eventually you see that every aspect of your life is part of your creative work, is fueling it, and so there is no point in changing anything. In any case, things are constantly changing anyway. So one day I may yet have that luxury.

9. Are there any dangers in your job?

The biggest dangers for people doing creative work are psychological. We don’t live in a society that makes pursuing any kind of art particularly easy. So there is a danger of becoming frustrated, jealous, depressed, self-loathing, or bitter. I suppose there is also the danger of simply not being able to pay your bills, but that’s a part of the whole package.

10. How much stress is connected to your career?

Stress is all in the mind. Some situations are typically more stress inducing than others, but it is our response that creates the stress, not the situation itself. Whatever you do in life, you will encounter stress, but if you keep this in mind, it will be a lot easier to deal with.

11. What are your typical weekly hours?

I work four days a week at the school. For my creative projects, often I will work about two hours at night, and twelve to twenty hours or so over the weekend. It varies depending what projects I’m working on and where they’re at.

12. Is family time restricted due to job duties?

Yes. Because I essential work two jobs, a lot of my would-be free time or social time is taken up working on creative projects.

13. What is the expected income for an entry level position? How often do you get paid?

For someone doing independent creative work there is no expected entry-level income. It all depends on what you do and if people buy it.

14. Salary or hourly position? Do you make enough money to be comfortable?

I support myself through my job at the school. As an independent writer/game-designer, my income has increased over the years, but I don’t make enough money to support myself doing only that. That job has no salary and no hourly wage. I make something, and if people buy it I get a percentage royalty after production and distribution costs.

15. What benefits are offered with your job?

My job at the school has good benefits, like health care, holidays, sick leave, and so on. My job as a writer and game designer has no such benefits. If you take a path like this, you have to find a way to sort out life’s logistical details, so you can continue to do your creative work.

16. What is retirement age?

What is retirement? What is age? There’s plenty of time to think about these things later in life. Focus on what’s happening now and you can never go wrong. For someone in a creative field, there is no end to creative possibilities.

17. Is there possibility for promotion/movement within the career?

There are always possibilities. Opportunities are abundant, to take good actions, to better yourself, to learn and expand your sphere of influence. These opportunities appear every day for everyone. You need only notice and embrace them.

18. Are you happy with your career choice?

I am very happy with the course my life and my career has taken. Sometimes things in life choose you, but if you embrace whatever happens, you will find happiness.

19. What advice would you give this class as they start their career search and preparation?

Here’s some strange advice, but it might work well for the right person.

Pick something obscure and learn absolutely everything about it, become the best at it. For example, if you want to play in an orchestra, don’t become a violin player, unless you can’t help it because that’s what you love or you just have extraordinary talent for that. Instead, if you become the best bassoon player in the world and you will always have an interesting job.

A while ago, I was doing some research on mummies for a story I was writing. It turned out there was one guy who was the world’s most renown expert on mummies. He knew everything there was to know about it. He had a mummy-related job and whenever something mummy related came up, he would be consulted. That’s the kind of possibility I’m talking about.

Beyond this interesting idea, I would say take responsibility for your own education. Read widely. Learn everything. Follow your interests, but don’t forget to take care of practical matters.

Finally, stop complaining, and simply take good actions.

20. What would you have done differently in high school?

This is a strange question, since I could not have done anything differently than I did. I was who I was at the time, and I am who I am now. But if you’re asking me what I think you should do while you’re in high school, I would say you should take advantage of the great opportunity to learn and better yourself and your situation. Study hard, learn as much as possible, but don’t worry too much about the future, other than to consider it and make some appropriate plans for what you will do after high school.

If you feel overwhelmed or depressed, ask for help. You’re not alone and people care about your well-being. Finally, don’t do anything foolish, like taking up drugs or drinking alcohol. Your brain and your body are still developing. Don’t risk messing yourself up for life. Maybe some of you are already doing these things and are thinking that it won’t mess you up, but you could be terribly wrong. You don’t even really know what messed up is, because you don’t really know where you’re at or what your true potential is.

Try to find out what your true potential is. It’s way bigger than you can even imagine.