House-Hunting, Tortured Artistry, and And the Real Secret to Creativity

In addition to gestating a new book at the moment, I’ve got another very exciting life pursuit coming up: moving. We’re selling our beloved in-city condo and headed for a sensible, grown-up domicile closer to…Work. When did life get so exciting? My husband and I are somewhat nomadic at heart–we’re not the “putting down roots” or–God forbid–“settling down” type. In fact, we’d planned a transatlantic move after I finished my MFA, but the collapse of capitalism as a viable economic system wreaked havoc on my husband’s company’s offices worldwide, and he we remain in Washington (happy to both still have good jobs, I might add). Now that we’re getting accustomed to the reality of being here for a while–a long while, maybe 20 years worth of a long while–we’re putting on our serious, grown-up faces and Looking At Real Estate.

We spent Sunday afternoon motoring around, with our trusty cat Zoe hanging out in the backseat of the car, checking out houses. We saw a lot of nice places and not so nice places, and may have found the house we want to buy. But maybe the most interesting of the places we walked through was the least appealing of them all.

It looked very ordinary from the outside–cute, even, with a very earthy, Northwest flavor, and a large wooded area behind the building. The garden evidently hadn’t been touched in a while, but it showed potential. The house wasn’t huge, but it would certainly be big enough for the two of us and Zoe. As soon as we got inside, we realized something was off about this property. There was nothing wrong with the house physically other than a carpet due for a deep cleaning. But the way the light filtered into the kitchen was ominous. And as I walked up the stairs, I felt that there was something behind me. The bedrooms on the second story were even more unpleasant. While they were reasonably large and well-lit, they carried a distinct sense of tension about them, and the walls seemed, strange as it sounds, to loom when I turned my back. I wanted to get out of there. As we finally walked back to the car, my husband remarked that “something bad definitely happened in there.” Both agreed that no one could pay us to live there.

I recently read a news article on a musician, Chris Butler, who bought Jeffrey Dahmer’s childhood home, in which Dahmer killed his first victim in house’s crawlspace. Butler claims he didn’t buy the property for any twisted thrill, and doesn’t believe in ghosts. He just wanted, he says, to have a place far enough from his neighbors that he could play music without bothering anyone. And he’s perfectly happy with his home. He admits, near the end of the article, that he finds the home a good fit for his artistic sensibilities. “It fits my alternative lifestyle, my musician-artist nature,” he says.

I don’t get Mr. Chris Butler. I’m glad he’s got a house he likes, certainly, but I don’t get it. I wouldn’t want to walk around in–much less live in–such a creeptastic house as the one I saw yesterday, and I find it odd that he’s described an artist’s nature as requiring or being supplemented by an atmosphere of serial murder. As a writer and a creative person, I’ve pretty much rejected the “tortured artist” paradigm; sometimes friends (who work in very different fields) ask whether the glum weather of Seattle, loneliness or even a bout of depression help with creativity. They seem surprised when I say I don’t buy into the idea that creativity is tied to unhappiness at all. That I don’t see any need to brood, drink myself to death, play all that much Joy Division around the house, or have existential crises on a regular basis. Sure, surrounding oneself with negativity seems to have worked for Edgar Allen Poe’s creative vibe. But he died at 40, may have starved his 13-year-old wife to death, and had a reputation for being a really unpleasant guy. Stephen King, an equally spooky author (you can love his books or hate them, but you cannot deny that the man is successful and prolific), has been sober for the past 30 years, enjoys a good family life and does philanthropic work. None of that has put out his creative spark.

Perhaps this all comes back to the need to be aware that there’s no trick, no magic spell, no right circumstance that allows creativity to flow. The real secret to maintaining creativity? It’s not much of a secret at all: work. Pure and simple. Put work into the book and it will give back to you. What we surround ourselves with is ancillary to the effort we choose to expend.

And since this strange work is what I’ve chosen to do, I’ll do it in a house with a skylight, not with looming walls.

One Reply to “House-Hunting, Tortured Artistry, and And the Real Secret to Creativity”

  1. Agreed, darling. Ghosts and bad mojo can be extremely distracting to the artist. Then again, there’s always sage to burn…

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