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HANGING IT OUT THERE
Pete McCormack interview on Creativity, Part II
with Kim Linekin (April 2006)

 “They're fancy talkers about themselves, writers. If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don't listen to writers talk about writing or themselves.”
—Lillian Hellman

 

K: How has your creative process evolved and what effect does getting older have on it?

P: Well, in many ways, it’s frustrating getting older, in that I don’t have the same diligence to sit in a room for 18 hours, writing frantically and self-obsessively. In other words, I’m more conscious of what I’m doing now. That’s good for me. Hopefully long term it will be good for my writing.

As I get older, I also realize more deeply that relationships with people and what is going around me are a fantastic aspect of life. So is the internal journey. Both are more profound than when I was younger. I have more of an internal experience now, which evolves by sticking to it.

Also, by continuing to be creative and by continuing to work at the creative process, it naturally expands as you go, and access to people expands, the access to ideas, the thought processes. Hopefully I’m more intelligent and more humble and my vision is wider.

We are different, as a child compared to a teenager is different; a teenager compared to a 20-year-old; 20 to 30 is different; 30 to 40. Our energies change and it is reflected in my creativity as well, and informs how to continue to do things. And deciding what to do next is sort of an organic thing.

As I get older, as relates to your question before, I want to do things that add beauty to this world, things that are redemptive or have beauty in them or create some beautiful desire. That kind of thing is very important to me, so that’s more solid.

K: Are you harder on yourself now than when you were younger?

P: I think I’m much less hard on myself as I get older.

K: It gets easier as you get to know your own creative process, I guess.

P: That part is actually very challenging. Learning my own creative process and enjoying my day regardless of how much I create remains an interesting challenge, even as I get older.

But in some ways, I consider it a certain meditative process of having more gratitude just to be here—just to have the opportunity of having a lousy day of writing is a great thing. Just to be able to be having a lousy day of writing as opposed to other jobs or other conditions is quite remarkable.

So I think learning to go towards joy and gratitude helps that journey. So I’m softer on myself in many ways.

K: Do ideas bubble up out of you or do you ever have to dig to get at them?

P: I’ve never had writer’s block but I’ve suffered a lot of writer’s crap. So I just write for days and weeks and it is just terrible sometimes and I’ve written final drafts that I just can’t stand and I’ve written first drafts in about six or seven weeks that I love, but came after writing fruitlessly—even hopelessly—for three years.

I remember once when I was writing at my sister’s. She came in to my room and saw me rewriting and rewriting and she said, “It makes me sick what you do, just the thought of going over and over the same thing. It just makes me want to vomit.” That’s an interesting summary. So although I have no shortage of ideas, I have a shortage of great results.

K: But you’ve never been at a loss for inspiration?

P: Not at all—and that is one of the good things about bouncing from medium to medium. For instance, I have a screenplay that I’m working on right now that I just cringe when I think about.

So instead I have a great day writing poetry or a good day writing songs. I’ll have a great day working on a documentary, which has been a great thing, or whatever the process is. But this damn screenplay? I cringe for fear of the same old frustration.

K: How do you decide what to do next?

P: I really try to follow impulses based on a sort of gratitude. I want to produce art that is sustainable, with the idea that life is worth it, this process is worth it, being here is a great thing, it’s a miraculous thing. So I generally follow that instinct. I want to write beautiful things.

K: Who do you write for?

P: I think we long to connect with people we know and people we don’t know, and socially, politically, economically and maybe spiritually, we underestimate the relationship we have with even people we don’t know.

Quantum physics is showing more and more that we are unified. Yogis have always said that we are somehow connected—that unified field was talked about in the Bhagavad-Gita three thousand years ago.

So I want to connect in a wider and deeper way, not just artistically but emotionally. I practice trying to see all people as if they truly are my brothers and sisters.

Artistically, I want to connect with people. Middle of the road responses are kind of depressing. I really like people to feel like they can relate and that my art shook them in a certain way. That is the honest answer.

I want people to be moved by the ideas. If I can inspire someone to think creatively or to rethink some position they had, sort of make them see the world slightly differently, right or wrong, that is a wondrous connection—especially without manipulating, but keeping art as a dialogue without us actually having a dialogue. If my art does that kind of thing, if it opens someone up, that is amazing to me.

K: What kind of fan encounters do you have?

P: Oh, it’s pretty much Beatlemania around here [laughs]. It’s not like I have this huge fan base. People always ask: what kind of music do you write? I always say, music that doesn’t sell. So that is one problem. People say, when are you going to write another book and I say, when somebody wants another book.

I think, in honesty, I get the feedback I want in my life, in my process with people. If I get that with art sometimes, that’s amazing.

I’ve had some really great feedback from Understanding Ken and already for Uganda Rising—or the immediate response of songs. Or an e-mail about something I wrote, or someone I don’t know loving my albums. With See Grace Fly I’ve had some wonderful letters from people who have mental illness in their family and are dealing with that.

But really, the answer is that I want it every day in my life in all my interactions. I’m here to learn service through love.

K: So how do you respond to criticism of your work?

P: In the moment it can put a dent in the mood, but very fleeting. Mostly it is painful when somebody thinks you’re incompetent or misguided—because it’s often true.

So although when you read, “The writer is hopeless and I wanted to kill myself out of boredom while I watched, and maybe shoot everybody else in the theatre just to put them out of their misery too,” it can be a little off-putting and I can have a certain defiance, it doesn’t last long. A couple of decades. And the truth is, some things are crap—and not just subjectively. May I read you my latest poem?

K: Have you learned anything from a criticism?

P: Constructive criticism during the process of creating and finishing is invaluable. I’m given insight into what is being seen. I find it really important to listen to the feedback and try to understand what is being said.

Just like in a relationship, to really read between the lines of the feedback because we are seldom able to say exactly what we think and feel—although we always think we say exactly what we think and feel.

So you get the feedback and you decipher it. When someone says, “I don’t like the ending,” maybe I’ll look a little deeper and discover the ending never had a chance because the second act didn’t build up enough to allow a decent ending. I actually really love and appreciate getting thoughtful, considered feedback.

K: Why are you putting your foibles and mullets and negative reviews on the website?

P: As a writer and as a person, I have always had a desire to be revealed, to myself, and to others. It is an enjoyable tension. It is freeing. And any fear of it means I am too attached, to tied up with this “Pete” experience.

And the reason I am pulled this way, is because there is some part of me that really does believe a deeper part is eternal, and that the body you see sitting here is really temporary and that Pete is temporary.

It’s even obvious upon simple observation. If the five-year-old me walked into a room, I probably wouldn’t recognize him, yet I don’t feel any different.

Same as if the 80 year old me walked in. So I just, I like to put things out there, to ease the condition of believing this is who I really am. So that’s why I like to put out my foibles. 

K: So what is a typical writing day like for you?

P: I always get up wanting to write. Hoping I’ll create more. What is different now in my life is I do things that make my life more conscious but may sometimes get in the way of my creative output.

For instance, I’m 41 and I find it is important for my lower back that I exercise. So I’ll try to get some sort of exercise in. A sprint to the fridge. Fast typing. That kind of thing. Also, with meditation, which I do religiously, no pun intended, I do it in the morning.

So in the old days, usually I’d just roll out of bed and go, literally, straight to my desk and start writing. So now I actually do like to be aware of transition, of taking time for a little gratitude, a little remembering.

That may seem quite normal for most people. But for me, I always felt good starting writing right away. I felt I got more done.

K: What time is that?

P: I often go to bed quite late so it varies. I don’t sleep a lot and I like to get up early. If I had my way, well, I do have my way, but if I had no other problems related to being human, I would get up and write right away. 

But that is not the best thing for me as a person. It probably isn’t the best thing for me creatively, either, long term.

The typical day is, I get up and do those things I mentioned. If I’m writing bigger projects, I need to be left alone. Not entirely isolated, I can have people around me, but I need to not have demands upon me for that evening and the next day, and in fact days and weeks at a time, to be effective, to really flow. I find that if I am interrupted for a day, if I have other obligations, the next day I don’t write very well or I don’t write at all.

I need to have continual freedom to just write every day for the bigger projects. So I’ll go away to my sister’s or desperately try to pretend I’m away for a few weeks. It’s a challenge for me as I’m sure it’s a challenge for everybody.

K: So are you better at writing in the afternoon or at night?

P: I’m actually better writing early in the morning, which is why I get disrupted with other aspects of my life. But they are necessary. If I have a lot of back pain, I don’t want to sit down at a desk. If I’m not grounded, I am unable to stay focused enough to be productive. So being good to myself is really important. Putting things in context is really important.

I used to write a lot late into the night, too, but that’s not good for mornings. So slowly, I am forced to, if not be a normal person, at least try to somewhat follow the rhythms of the universe as they apply to an essentially diurnal species. But we’re a mixed lot.

So it is this wonderful dance that everyone has in their own lives of how to optimize being human and doing things. We require maintenance.

Ideally, in the old days, I think in the morning, it was good to write and late at night, it was good to write. I would write to 4:00am, from 11:00pm to 4:00am. But I don’t feel very good when I get up at 8:00am because it’s a lack of sleep, and 11:00am just depresses me. God, I’m high maintenance. So it is an interesting dance, and the more beautiful I find it, the better it is.

K: How many hours a day is your maximum for being productive?

P: When I get close to the end of a project and I’m really working hard on it, I can work 15-16 hours a day. It is not always that healthy but I can do it. At other times, I can only get an hour or two in a day that’s worthwhile. Sometimes nothing at all, even though I’ve spent the whole day around the computer and around paper, pacing and eating handfuls of granola.

And there is a space between creations when I wonder a lot, and dream a lot, and still write when I should just refill. In fact, reminder to self: remember and enjoy.

So I really just try to maintain the fire and maintain doing creative work that moves me, otherwise, I can get a little lost.

K: So you’re at your sister’s for a few weeks, working on your screenplay, would you say you could get in six hours a day?

P: Yes, maybe six hours, maybe eight hours. When I was younger, probably 10-12 hours. The quality of what I write is a whole other story, but part of the process.

But the question of how much do you write is what writers and artists always ask, because writers and artists feel guilty a lot. I bow to the person who is kind and loving and creative enough inside, in all the necessary ways in life, to really enjoy and soak up the fleeting miracle of being alive—and not at the expense of others. She is my hero. Writing productivity or even quality pales in comparison.

And putting this Calvinist work ethic at the forefront of life misses so much—including the question why?—and has its roots in so many suffering-related traditions that leave families separated, kids in day-care, slaves in the field, and writers forgetting the miracle of just staring at the rain. What some people wouldn’t do to just stare at the rain. I vow to enjoy more and more staring at the rain.

K: How have you managed to balance making art and making a living?

P: One of the keys was that for me making a great living was never a priority. Not that I want to sound like I don’t understand that people have to make a living, particularly with family—it can be exceedingly tough. I have to make a living too. I can just live incredibly cheaply.

When I was say between 20 and 30, I lived on about $3,000 to maybe $12,000 a year, on a good years. My rent was not very expensive, necessarily. . I lived with my brother a lot, which was a great thing. Actually I didn’t live with him, I lived off him. That was like $200 a month—he was a saviour.

My sister did the same thing for me. I remember staying with her for the weekend or the week and then not leaving for a year. People are exceedingly kind to me. Living on couches never bothered me. I didn’t have to have a car—in fact used the isolation to work—I didn’t have a mortgage, I didn’t desire to have a family. I didn’t desire those things and that was very freeing in one way.

Also, my family was supportive, so I was not going to go hungry, not for a second. I started to make a little more money in my early to mid 30s, from screenplays. Even though I’d already had books published, I never made a lot of money with them.

It was nice to have a little more money but it didn’t change my lifestyle that much except now, in my 40s, I live in a better place, which I enjoy and am grateful for. But I know all these things are fleeting.

Just to be able to create for a living is remarkable. I never felt I would jeopardize the creative process by having car payments that made me have to get another job, for example. It’s not expensive to write all day. It is expensive to write all day in a nice place with a nice car. As for those who never have these opportunities, that is a whole different story, and I wish the world was not like that.

K: What help you stay focussed on being driven by your own ideas as opposed to spending money on lots of movies and having TV?

P: I just don’t like TV in my house, in general, and I have a certain depression-era cheapness about me. My dad’s ancestors were all blue collar workers from East London, who on a bad day died from TB, and on a good day weren’t in the workhouse.

I do wonder if I’d had more success more quickly, what it would have changed. I don’t know, and when you’re in the middle of life, it doesn’t necessarily seem to make sense at all. It seems very chaotic and uncertain.

But looking back on it, over 41 years, it seems to have unfolded in a way that actually makes complete sense. I think ahhh, it was good this happened or this didn’t happen because it allowed me to maintain a sense, as you’ve said, of trying to create something original from myself.

Of course we are shaped and pushed and pulled by other forces, whether it’s too little interest or too much interest. The stance is what matters. A wise person, they say, is equanimous and grateful under both conditions.

I wrote both my novels on spec, that is to say no one wanted them at the time—and not many do now—and I wrote all my songs that way. I’ve written most everything that way and I still write that way.

Sometimes now, things come up, projects that I can’t refuse. Like this one on Uganda. I couldn’t refuse it because it was very exciting and soulfully rewarding. Screenplays. I’ve worked with some wonderful people writing on the few that I’ve been commissioned for. That was a good thing too but I tend to be one who just wants to do what I want to do.

And as I get older, it is so often related to what I am trying to understand, or refine. I’m young that way. I like to live like a kid in Grade 7 obsessed with a project on sharks or Muhammad Ali or dinosaurs.

K: Are there any sacrifices you’ve had to make that kind of hurt?

P: I don’t remember any sacrifices that hurt—although it’s been said if something doesn’t hurt a little it’s not a sacrifice. Following my dharma, following my creative urge, was sometimes not as healthy as it could be—too sedentary or a bit chaotic on the brain being so absorbed in ideas, so mentally focussed, as opposed to staying grounded in the body and taking care of yourself and eating well and so on.

But that was and is so outweighed by how it always served my well-being and my mental health to do what my heart wanted to do. So the sacrifices were small in comparison to the bliss and the joy and the satisfaction of doing what I wanted to do and following my path.

The offshoot of being creative is that I get to research a lot and to read a lot. All those passions also move me. Philosophy, spirituality, creativity, history, those are always there in my life as well as part of my daily creative journey.

I couldn’t be more fortunate. Why I’ve been so fortunate I don’t know, but the least I can do is remember that every day, and give back what I can, which is at the very least love in every moment. That’s what I want to do.

 

Kim Linekin has contributed film reviews and interviews for NOW magazine and eye Weekly in Toronto, Fast Forward Weekly in Calgary, the Director's Guild of Canada magazine, and CBC national radio.

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copyright 2006 Pete McCormack