In the spring of 2016, I had come to the end of a certain road.
After forty years of a productive and reasonably successful writing life, I had to admit that my enduring passion for writing books was not being matched in any meaningful way by the market’s passion for buying them. Having just released my latest work to no particular acclaim, I faced the daunting prospect of spending a year or more writing another book that too few people would read.
I couldn’t get psyched for that.
Worse, I’d lost my writing mojo. I didn’t feel like I had much of anything new to say on the page, nor was I particularly thrilled with most of what made its way there. I was unmoved. And unmoving.
At first, this didn’t concern me, for in my long career as a writer I had lost and found my mojo many times. Being sick of your own work for a while but then falling in love with it again is a writer’s stock in trade. But this was different. This was burnout.
I just didn’t want to write anymore.
By coincidence or providence, I was about to undergo rotator cuff surgery, following which, under doctors’ orders, I anticipated not putting a hand to computer keyboard for a month or two, maybe more.
I viewed this layoff as a blessing. I looked forward to letting my creative batteries discharge completely; to wandering in the green fields of new ideas, and to emerge in the fullness of time with my passion for writing reborn.
For the record, what cost me my rotator cuff and put me in this impending surgical pickle was my longtime devotion to the sport of ultimate frisbee, or just ultimate as it’s known, a team sport and a field sport, something like football or fútbol but without all the hitting, kicking and falling down.
As a kid I never felt at home in any sport, especially the hitting, kicking and falling down ones. I did love baseball, but I couldn’t run, hit, field, throw or catch and I was afraid of the ball, oh well.
But then I found ultimate, and in it, I found an athletic practice, aerobic workout and groovy community that became fixtures in my life from the moment they entered my life. Three cheers for ultimate – playing it has kept me fit for more than four decades.
Except not my shoulder, which I killed to death with too many throws.
Surgery would fix that. They’d go in there with a belt sander, some anchor bolts, and duct tape, and in half a year I’d be good as new.
But here’s what I hadn’t counted on: For those first months after surgery, when I was not writing, I would also not be running.
Now as a fully accredited armchair endocrinologist, I can tell you that exercise and creativity are two great sources of endorphins, those natural neurochemicals that tell the brain (well, at least this brain) that all is right with the world. I quickly figured out that I could live without writing and I could live without running, but living without both? No. That dog don’t hunt.
I met my exercise needs by just marching endlessly around my neighborhood like a one-armed madman. But I couldn’t write. Couldn’t even reach the keyboard.
No sweat, right? Just talk into the tape, right? Problem solved. But in my state of mind at the time, that wouldn’t work. I thought that dictating crappy stories would not be much different from writing them.
So there I was, in a bind.
I needed a creative practice; my wellness required it. And it had to be something that I could do one-handed – wrong-handed – with a computer mouse.
Up to that point, my only even remotely artistic experience had been simple book cover design using a computer application called GIMP – GNU Image Manipulation Program – the poor man’s (or broke man’s) Photoshop. It offers a pleasing array of shapers, stretchers, filters, cutters, pencils, brushes and other tools that one might use to make amazing, wonderful, beautiful art.
One might. Not me.
I couldn’t handle any of those tools.
Didn’t know how.
This wasn’t ignorance on my part. It was stubborn self-definition. I was a writer, not an artist – and like every other non-artist in the world, I was completely certain that I had no talent for art, so why waste time learning something that was manifestly not my thing?
One thing I did have going for me was that I already knew how to drive a mouse left-handed. In the early days after surgery, I found that there was a lot I could do at the computer, just not any typing.
So it suddenly occurred to me that I could devote this enforced hiatus of mine to really learning what GIMP could do and to learning what I could do with it. This would give me a creative outlet of sorts, and perhaps relieve the crankiness that was driving me nuts.
Only one problem. In order to do this experiment or exercise or whatever I wanted to call it, I would have to stop seeing myself as a writer and start seeing myself as an artist.
Okay, maybe not an artist artist, but at least not a non-artist.
It was a big hurdle. After all these years – decades, my whole life – of self-defining as a writer, I was suddenly going to self-define as something else? Who the hell does that? How does one do that? How does one dare? The change seemed so big, the ambition so grandiose, that it quickly overwhelmed me.
But as a writer of long experience, I’ve learned a thing or two about creative practice, and one thing I’ve learned is that when the task seems overwhelming, it’s usually because I’ve set the stakes too high. To lower the stakes, I merely needed to lower expectations – in this case really lower them, like all the way
down to the floor.
When I asked myself how I might do that, the answer came to me in words, these words right here:
“I’ll get a white belt in art.”
That’s where one starts in martial arts, right? In karate or judo, the first belt you get is the white belt – and you get it just for showing up. In going after a white belt I gave myself the freedom to experiment or explore, with no need to achieve. I didn’t have to make images that were amazing, wonderful or beautiful. I just
had to show up.
That it turned into my next work-in-progress was something of a happy accident, but there it is – A White Belt in Art – the story, in words and pictures of “me just showing up.” I hope you find your way to it, and that it does half the good for you that it’s already done for me.
© 2017, John Vorhaus. All rights reserved.
John Vorhaus is the author of seven novels, ten books on poker, and the world-renowned Comic Toolbox. He travels and teaches writing all over the world – 35 countries on five continents at last count. He tweets for no apparent reason @TrueFactBarFact and secretly controls the world from www.johnvorhaus.com. Oh, and he did the cover design for this book.