This is a reprint from the blog of multi-published, multi-genre author S. L. (Lynn) Viehl. Every year in July she hosts a virtual writing conference. When I read this article, I thought it really fit into my ‘muse’ series of posts, so I emailed Lynn and asked her if I could reprint it here. She agreed.
I. Two Godmothers
The Publishing Fairy doesn’t know this, but there are two other godmothers in my life. One is a beautiful, ethereal creature named Bliss who floats around me in a state of perpetual joy. She dresses in anything that sparkles and has four feet of pure white hair cascading around her pretty face. Everything enchants her: roses, clouds, puppies, fruit salad, sunsets, Clannad, crystal, violet silk, and the list goes on forever so just add on whatever sensory-rich object or experience you like. I will say that while she’s a bit of a dingbat, and has no concept of time, she’s pretty cool to hang out with, even if she can never coordinate her colors or find two shoes that match.
And then there’s my other godmother, Olivia (she prefers Liv.) If I were to cast her in a movie, I’d get someone like Dame Judith Dench to play her, or that drill sergeant I had in the military. She dresses in permanent press, carries a day planner and wears three watches; two around each wrist and one cinched around her purse strap in case the other two stop. She keeps her iron-gray hair trimmed and pulled back in a neat ponytail. She has absolutely no time for roses or sunsets or puppies, thank you very much. They are not on the schedule. Her shoes always match.
Bliss and Liv don’t like each other. At. All. Bliss thinks Liv needs to relax and unwind and take time to smell the roses. Liv thinks Bliss should keep her flowers and sparkles to herself and get a damn job. They can’t agree on anything and if it were up to them, I’d kick the other fairy godmother out of the house. Bliss sobs in my right ear that Liv is going to kill my soul. Liv hisses in my left ear that Bliss is going to turn my brain into Jell-O.
I love them both, and I have tons of respect for both, but frankly? Trying to divide up my day so I can work with and please both of these women is an ongoing, gigantic pain in my ass. The only good thing is that I know I’m not alone in that. Every other writer I know struggles with their own variations of Bliss and Liv. It’s the price we pay for being blessed with the fairy godmothers of Art and Life.
II. The Flower and The Flame
Liv, my fairy godmother of Life, has been with me since I was eight years old. My mother introduced me to her right before she started working a second job. Mom taught me how to clean, cook, iron and take care of the house and my younger brother and sister. Liv showed up while Mom was at work to make sure I did it. I used to think she was a creature of my conscience, as she always popped in whenever I was thinking about slacking off or playing, but now I’m pretty sure I timeshare her with my mom. She even sounds like my mother whenever she gives me a talking-to: “The laundry pile is starting to attract mountain-climbers. Don’t throw away that old towel, you can tear it up into dusting rags. That chicken isn’t going to walk out of the freezer and defrost itself, you know.”
Liv and I have never really bonded emotionally in a big way — she doesn’t encourage that sort of touchy-feely nonsense — but I respect her. The woman knows how to get stuff done.
I’m not sure when Bliss showed up; probably a little later than Liv. I was reading a story in a school about Dick and Jane at the toy store, and Dick picked out a (sail)boat while Jane went for the blue ball. I thought that was stupid; the (sail)boat was way cooler than that dumb ball. Boys always have the coolest toys. Then Bliss shimmered into being in a soft, sparkly cloud of flower petals on top of my desk and handed me my pencil and some paper. “Here,” she whispered. “Write a story where Jane picks the (sail)boat, and takes it down to the canal behind your house, where a magical catfish turns it into a yacht and she sails it down to Miami.”
I didn’t write more than a few lines; the teacher caught me and scolded me for not being on task (maybe Liv ratted me out, not sure.) Bliss did stick around comforting me until it was time to go home, and then chased Liv out of the house so I could finish writing the story. Liv popped back in right before my mom got home, punched out Bliss (who exploded into a thousand sparkles) and then lit a fire under my butt. Liv nagged me the whole time while I raced to take down the laundry from the clothesline, get supper started and do the rest of my forgotten chores. She didn’t leave until late that night, and even then she gave me another lecture. “You’ll never get anything done if you listen to that stupid flower fairy,” she told me. “Now be a good girl, close your eyes and go to sleep. You have to make breakfast for the little ones in the morning.”
As soon as she was gone, Bliss popped into my bedroom and handed me a picture book and the flashlight she’d swiped from the garage. “Here, sweetie,” she said, giggling. “The heck with that flame fairy. Hide under the quilt and read this while I keep an eye out for your mom.”
And that’s how it’s been ever since, for the last forty years. Liv tries to run my life, while Bliss tries to make me forget about it. For a long time they hated each and bickered and whined and fought over who would have control of me. It was almost always a stalemate, although when I became a teenager Bliss and I started spending some serious time together writing and painting. Those were wonderful years. Then I went into the military, and Liv helped me cope while my instructors whipped my ass into shape. Those were great years, too.
I never picked sides, but I was often lost in the middle between Bliss and Liv. I’ve loved them both, and I’ve resented the hell out of them both, but after a while I realized (much to their disappointment) that I was never getting rid of either of them. It wasn’t until I sat down with both of my godmothers in 1989 that things changed. That was the day I decided to quit bouncing between the two of them and instead make them work together.
III. Facing Your Godmothers
I think most creative people do have a variation of Bliss and Liv in their lives. They may also have other mystical creatures — the sports gremlin, the fashion fury, the car or motorcycle demon. All of these imaginary beings live through us, and bring us a lot of happiness and satisfaction, but they’re always wrestling for control. When they show up we can become so involved in whatever they want to do that we forget that we’re in charge. Instead, we let them run the show. It results in a lot of great things, but it can also create chaos, mess with our relationships and wreck our homes, checkbooks, jobs, hopes and dreams.
Whatever godmothers you’ve been blessed or cursed with, the first step in gaining and maintaining control of them is to acknowledge their importance to you. I love Bliss; she’s a lot of fun and we always have a good time together. She’s also inefficient, messy and can’t be trusted in the kitchen. Bliss has encouraged me and inspired me, but she’s also made me misplace things, wreck my office, forget doctor’s appointments and burn dinner. Likewise Liv has been my biggest ally in keeping my home and work space tidy, and doing whatever I must to care for the ones I love. She appeals to my sense of order and cleanliness, but she’s never satisfied. She works me hard, often makes me resent all the time I give her and when that’s not good enough to suit her standards, drives me crazy.
Once I knew I was stuck with my godmothers, and that I needed to somehow integrate them to work together as a team to help me get everything I wanted and needed to do done, I then had to work out a treaty between them and myself. I acknowledged that both of my godmothers had equal importance in my life (something Liv never really believed, considering how much of it I had wasted while hanging out with Bliss) and that to be a productive, happy person I needed both of them (something that made Bliss laugh, as her nickname for Liv is the Grim Sweeper.)
They really didn’t like the idea of working together, either. Liv thought Bliss would make a mess of everything, and Bliss thought Liv would have me creating in a straitjacket. They only quit bickering when I told them that if they didn’t make peace and start cooperating that I was going to kick them both out, run away from home and devote the rest of my life to living with the Tibetan Caveman.
(Liv is now reminding me that I’ve let Bliss help me write all of the above, and it’s now her turn to have a crack at you.)
IV. Charting Your Time
Here’s an exercise from Liv that you can use to figure out how much time you’re spending on art and life:
1. Take a notebook or writing pad and use it to create a time log of everything you do in one day. You don’t have to write down details, just put together an outline of your activities and the time you spend doing them.
2. At the end of the day, go through your list and mark each entry by the godmother who was with you (or the type of task it was): Art or Life (if you have other godmothers that don’t fit under those two categories, create other categories for them.)
3. Add up and write down the total number of hours you spent doing things in each category.
4. Repeat steps 1-3 for a full week.
Using Excel or an online chart making generator, create a chart for each of the category totals from your week, like this one.
(Liv loves graphs. If I let her, she’d pie chart my entire life.)
Now look at the results on your graph. Obviously art and life can’t have equal time; it’s just not practical for anyone to forgo the tasks and responsibilities of life to create 24/7. But neither should life take up all the space on your graph; there should be some time each day for art or life becomes dreary for creative people.
In the example from my time chart, I had to give up a lot of art time on Wednesday, when I spent more than fourteen hours taking care of some medical appts. for both me and my daughter, cleaning the house for a friend who is coming to stay with us, and taking the dog for his semi-annual checkup. That day Bliss and I hardly saw each other. But on the next day and on Sunday I devoted a little extra time to art to get things back in balance.
Your turn: go back to your notebook, and look at the details of what you did on each day when art or life got the least amount of your time. Was there a valid reason for chasing off the corresponding godmother that day? (i.e., working overtime at your day job or attending an all-day writing seminar.) Did you devote a little more time the next day to the neglected godmother? If so, your art and life are probably in good balance.
If your chart is severely out of whack, and there is no valid reason for the imbalance or you didn’t make up the time, it’s probably a good idea to start planning out your days a little more to set aside an appropriate amount of time for each of your godmothers.
V. The Godmother Cooperative
Getting your godmothers to timeshare you is more important than you think. Without Liv around to motivate me to get things done, my life would be in a shambles, and I’d be miserable. Liv and I are a lot alike in the sense that we both have a great need for order. I understand Liv, too; she cares for me and my family, has kept me employed, makes my work and living space enjoyable and has helped me through some of the worst times in my life simply by keeping me busy.
I don’t always understand Bliss, who can be as mysterious as she is spontaneous, but I know that she’s brought a lot of joy and beauty to my life. She’s made me see the world differently and has gotten me to do some amazing things. Sometimes she scares me because I have no idea why I got stuck with her, but I basically trust her with everything. Except dinner.
I also believe that Bliss and Liv have to work together for us all to be happy. While we’ve been through some rough spots, my godmothers of art and life have also learned from each other (they’ll never admit this, of course.) Bliss knows that if I’m going to write a book with her that Liv is going to be involved in scheduling my time and making my wordcounts and meeting my deadlines. Liv understands that basic tasks like vacuuming the living room or doing the dishes don’t require that I listen to a CD that Bliss likes while I do them, but that I’m happier when I do, and the work seems to go more quickly.
(Liv thinks Bliss is hogging the workshop again, but Bliss is reminding her that everything cannot be numbered or charted.)
We often think of the creative existence as being caught in a perpetual battle between art and life, but the different godmothers in your life really shouldn’t be at war with each other. The ones that should be a part of your life do want what’s best for you, so it’s good to look for opportunities to get them all involved in your daily life. You’ll find that your version of Liv is a lot happier if you set an alarm clock when you sit down to write to remind you when you need to stop and start dinner. Likewise your version of Bliss will be more content if you carry a notebook to jot down some ideas for your current WIP while you’re waiting in line to pick up the kids at school.
The creative life isn’t easy, and sometimes it takes years to work a livable arrangement with your respective godmothers. They’re selfish and demanding by nature, and they will always try to run your life for you. The most important thing to remember is that the life is yours, not theirs. The one who should be in charge is you.
VI. Related Links (can be found at the bottom of the original post here.)