“My life is very ordinary, common place, middle class, quiet and hard-working. I enjoy it immensely. I do not find it appropriate to talk about it very much.”
The schedule of famous writers and creators has always been a fascination of mine, and I know I’m not alone. Despite what social media tells you, there’s no right or wrong way to create. What works for one person won’t always work for someone else. Glean what you can. Reject what doesn’t work. Part of creating is learning what works for you. Be kind and humble enough to let others follow their own path.
It’s easy to see the appeal. I too am a fan of thinking in bed, breakfast foods, reading, and taking time to be stupid. (The graphic above omits her 10 PM bedtime, for some reason. So it’s only two hours of stupidity despite what we all hoped.)
Yesterday, we learned that Stan Lee—creator of many of the Marvel characters we all know and love—passed away at 95. Few have profoundly shaped pop culture like him, and fewer still have instilled their values into the zeitgeist. He was incomparable, and the comics world is a lesser place without him.
My own connection with Stan Lee is tenuous. I read every comic I could get my hands on as a kid, but it was never as many as I wanted. What I did read (’80s G.I. Joe, Star Trek) wasn’t usually centered around superheroes, so I don’t have the same relationship to his creations as some of my friends. But as an adult—beyond respecting the man as a creator, storyteller, and visionary—there is also something in Stan Lee’s personal history that I’ve come to admire.
Today our culture is obsessed with the idea of young success. It’s readily apparent in the tech culture where listicles of ‘Youngest Billionaires’ and profiles of the ‘Top 30-under-30’ are standard. But that worship of young success goes well beyond the technology sector. We see it in private lives, we see it in political ones, its apparent in education, religion, and entertainment. This drive for success is heaped upon the shoulders of the next generation, they’re pushed to succeed earlier and faster than their peers. That intense pressure can be both overwhelming and debilitating.
“You know, my motto is ‘Excelsior.’ That’s an old word that means ‘upward and onward to greater glory.’ It’s on the seal of the state of New York. Keep moving forward, and if it’s time to go, it’s time. Nothing lasts forever.”
Stan Lee’s own career is an antithesis of our culture’s obsession with young success. Here’s a man who started working at Timely Comics in 1939 when he was 17. But even with mild accomplishments during The Golden Age of Comics, his career languished. It wasn’t until several decades later, after having served in WW2 and after decades of toiling away in the comic’s industry that he launched the Fantastic Four with Jack Kirby. That series transformed comics, they made superheroes people, and the Fantastic Four took off. From there his career only blossomed. Spiderman. Hulk. Thor. Black Panther. Iron Man. The X-Men. Daredevil. The Avengers. Dr. Strange. The list of his creations is nearly endless.
That is what I love about Stan Lee. He was not an overnight success. His debuts weren’t a best-seller hit. But he kept doing what he loved. He fought through those his negative emotions and experiences, and he eventually made a profound impact. But it wasn’t until his forties that he became the success we know today: a man who’s creations reshaped the entertainment world as we know it. It’s important to remember that.
I admire that grit and that tenacity. I admire the willingness to stick with one’s passions—even in the darkest of days. It’s a lesson we should take to heart. Maybe with our own creative careers, we can all strive to be a little more like Stan Lee.
Rest easy, Stan. Thank you for everything. Excelsior, indeed.
Distraction is one of my biggest struggles; something I grapple with on a daily basis. A few days ago, I posted how we as creatives need to choose to make time for our craft. I referred to time as the “currency for creation.” But there’s another metaphor that works just as well: time is the medium from which we craft our creative work. Without time we cannot produce—everything else: charcoal, oil paint, clay, wood, words, everything, is secondary to time. Yet, in an ever-connected world finding those moments can often feel difficult and overwhelming. When we do find the time it’s often fleeting, and we’re bogged down by distraction.
Those called to creation understand this on a very personal level. Obligations already eat away at the narrow slivers of time from which we hone our craft. And the siren call of distraction is always there to lure us away. Occupying oneself into idleness is easy. At the end of the day, the week, the month, the year one looks back and find themselves unfulfilled and wonders: what happened?
In the struggle of creation, eventually, the creator must learn to say ‘no.’
In the struggle of creation, eventually, the creator must learn to say ‘no.’ At first, it’s terrifying. In our culture of ‘yes’ a word like ‘no’ sounds final. (It’s not, but that doesn’t matter.) Your friends won’t get it. The family won’t understand. Entertainment and Social Media hate hearing ‘no,’ they feed off distraction. Our phones are abuzz with alerts demanding attention. The 24-hour news cycle wants you to believe everything is a crisis. Click ‘yes’ to receive alerts for this random website. It’s endless. Empathy for the creator—when it exists at all—is ephemeral. Dreams and drives get brushed aside as frivolous whims. Oh, that. That’s just a hobby. Nothing will come of that. Do that instead. Watch this. Come here. Go there. Play this. Guilt and shame are wielded with selfish abandon. But it’s for you! They say when really it’s for them.
Facing those pressures is difficult. We’ve all crumbled and given in, and those slivers of time are lost forever. You don’t get them back. Hence, the lesson of ‘no.’ Learning to say ‘no’ allows us to set boundaries. It establishes what is important and it set priorities. It’s the first step in building a routine, making the work habitual, and living in the moment.
To be effective ‘no’ is something every creator has to master. Shut out the distractions. No, Twitter isn’t important. No, you don’t need to watch that latest reboot on Netflix. No, you don’t need to make that phone call. No, brunch isn’t necessary this weekend. Face the pressure head on, stand your ground, and make the choices for what matters to you. It’s important for our mental health. It’s important for the work. It’s important for creation. ‘No’ lets us carve out moments in time, and after all, time is the true medium.
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Most “rules” for writing are hyper-personal. What works for one writer will not work for another writer. We each discover our own path in the journey of creation and each path is as different as the person who walks it. But there is one bit of advice that remains true regardless of our course: to become a writer, you have to write.
That is a choice in itself. It doesn’t matter what we desire to do, if you’re driven to create then you have to participate in that act of creation. What you’re doing at that moment isn’t choosing to write but choosing the time to write. Time is the currency for creation. That applies to every creator working in any medium and is not restricted to writers.
Time is the currency for creation.
During the nineteenth-century labor movement, Robert Owen began the push for the eight-hour workday. It was he who coined the slogan “Eight hours labor, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest.” Since then, it’s been co-opted by labor movements and labor organizations across the world. Most artists I know have to work full-time jobs (sometimes many)—art is often secondary to that work. That leaves sixteen hours (if we’re lucky) to divide between rest and creation. From the onset, many of us are already limited in the amount of time we can spend walking our path.
Time is finite. Once spent it cannot be reclaimed. If a creator is driven to create, then we need to learn to spend our time wisely. If we work full-time jobs, we’re already limited. We need to set priorities that permit us the time to create. That requires sacrifice. Choosing time means making sacrifices and cutting out other things that serve only as a distraction.
For me, that meant I quit playing video games. I stopped watching movies. Television went by the wayside. This year, I’ve significantly cut back on live sports as well—I no longer choose to sacrifice four hours to a football or baseball game, not when my time is limited.
As with the individual’s path of creation, the path of sacrifice will be different for each creator. The choices you make will be personal. But you’re going to have to make them. In the end, it’s up to you. It’s your choice.
1 This is a topic for another time, but I know many artists who have to work several jobs. For some it’s so they can afford health insurance, for others, it’s so they can afford food or rent. This only further limits their time, and further restricts their choices.
2 This isn’t to say you can’t enjoy these things. You can! I haven’t become a Luddite. But I treat each of these as rewards instead of as a lifestyle. That makes my time with each more special.
“People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.”
“You should write, first of all, to please yourself. You shouldn’t care a damn about anybody else at all. But writing can’t be a way of life; the important part of writing is living. You have to live in such a way that your writing emerges from it.”