When I was getting ready to come over to Afghanistan, I thought I would make my year over here into my own personal Walden. Like Thoreau, I thought I would buckle down and create at a ludicrous pace. I would write every night, watch movies, read a book every two weeks, and study the first four seasons of Saturday Night Live.
Well, I kinda got some things done.
I did write for a few good-sized websites, I have composed more than 100 pages in my first novel, I’ve put together my first little comedy book, and I know now how to write by night light while roommates are sleep.
But besides that, I learned a few things about myself and my creative process over the last 11 months.
1) Count Sheep Because Sleep Counts
Good ideas flow faster when my brain is awake. My minimum threshold for great ideas is usually around six hours of sleep. Anything beyond six and I am at most creative. If I sleep less than six, but more than five, I’m ok, but getting the creative juices takes some cajoling. If I get less than five hours of sleep, my brain usually only fires on half the amount of pistons it needs. No creative functions are on. I can survive throughout the day, and probably even do well at work, but my post-work well of independent creation is bone dry.
Back home, I used exhaustion as a muse. I could create late at night when the creative process of my dreams had half taken over my conscious thoughts. Here, however, with night lights on, and after 12-15 hours of work, the creative spark doesn’t come while my eyes are half-glazed staring at the illuminated laptop monitor.
Also, the more consecutive days of less than six hours of sleep, the less creative the days get. Without weekends, there are no days to “re-charge”, so I have to take control of the process if I want to create. Some days might have less time in order for the next few days to be more creative.
2) Watch the Work Wear
Looking at spreadsheets, working long-term tasks and projects, and staring at computers all day puts a definite dent and damper on my creative process. It’s tough to jump from spreadsheet staring to creative wonder in moments. When the mind is used to looking at a computer screen and processing data with the straight-laced, in-the-box side of the brain, it takes time to switch gears to the other side of the mind. It’s even worst when I’m working on a big project. Some nights the switch never takes place and I end up surfing web sites until the eye-bleeding hours of night. Then I give up and go to sleep, often too late, effecting the next day (see section on sleep). The worst is when the long hours of work leave longstanding stains in my brain and the images of work permeate my subconscious and slip into my dreams.
3) Influence of Intake
As my main creative outlet is writing, the words I read tend to have a large indirect impact on the words I write. Back in grad school, as I wrote my master’s thesis on the Kurdish Peshmerga, on my professor’s advice to read something unrelated, I read Tolkien’s The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. To this day, I think those books had a profound effect on the “story” of my own subject.
These days, I still see books I read swaying my writing, especially my long-term projects. Most of the fall and now through winter I have been hard at work on my novel. In November, I was also reading Brian Spaeth’s Flight of a Super Airplane, a whimsical, lighthearted, comedy adventure featuring the author’s vision of Bruce Willis. Reading Spaeth, I felt the words bounce out of my own fingers, twisting and curving, and making somewhat of the same pattern of wordology that makes Spaeth’s works so unique. Of course, that’s not a complete coincidence, as I’ve been a fan of his style since I cameoed on his blog many, many moons ago.
Now I am reading Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare by Jason Fry. While I am a huge fan of Fry’s work both in the Star Wars universe and on Faith and Fear in Flushing, one of my favorite sports blogs, his work here is much more of a history book of war in the Star Wars universe. While interesting and engaging, my own writing isn’t flipping and bouncing as it was while reading Spaeth. It’s much more serious, which is what one might expect when reading a war book, albeit a fictional one.
4) Interaction and Inspiration
I never realized how important other people are to my creative writing process. I’m the type of person who tells people about my creative projects. When they get excited about your endeavors, I really believe people’s encouragement can push you through even the most treacherous slog. They are the cheerleaders, the fans, and the harness that keeps you walking that mental tightrope of a major creative project. When I am solely on myself for encouragement and I am my only cheerleader, my voice tends to get hoarse quicker and my pom poms tend to not stay in the air as long. I have to resort to reading my old blog posts and watching my old videos for inspiration, which I’ll admit can be a hoot and a bit of a shot in the arm.
5) Peers and Pals
Along the same path as inspiration from others, knowing what creative projects others are doing also drives me to create. Especially when I talk shop with other writers. While I was in Kabul, I met with a few people who were writers. Almost daily, we would talk shop and I would share some of my work with them. Their approval pushed me to write more. Here on my new base, I haven’t met any writers at all. I don’t really even talk to that many people as the building I work in is segmented in alcove closed-door offices. And then there is the fact that Army people tend not to talk to too many civilians on a personal level and I am surrounded by Army folks. Nice folks, but I have no idea if they are creative or not. I definitely don’t see people running around making the second Flash Vs The Aliens.
6) Conclude the Conclusion
If many of these factors were identifiable in the states, they are even double, if not triple more so felt in Afghanistan. Here the hours are longer, the work is more stressful, the spare time more sparse, and the support farther away. I never thought it would be easy and although I have gotten a lot done in the last year, I never thought it would be this difficult.