Give Your Gremlin a Cookie

In a 2014 interview with Sting on “The TED Radio Hour,” the journalist Guy Raz asked him the question: “ What is creativity?”

Here’s what Sting said, and I know I got his words down exactly right, because I listened to his answer at least three times. “For me, it’s the ability to take a risk. To actually put yourself on the line and risk ridicule, being pilloried, criticized or whatever. But you have an idea that you think you want to put out there, and you must take that risk.”

I wrote down what he said because I knew risk-taking was critical to what I’d been trying to do, which was put my career as a TV writer on pause, and try to write a novel. It was a clue…a piece of the puzzle. In fact, I’d often thought that risk-taking was the big thing I needed to do more of EVEN IN my work as a TV writer.

But knowing something is different than doing it, and I had never been able to put it into practice. And even though I felt certain Sting was right about taking risks, the part he didn’t say was how to do it! So hmm.

I have never been much of a risk taker. Ask my husband and he’ll tell you. I always leave early for meetings. I pack two or even three times as many pairs of underwear as I’ll ever need when I go on a trip. I get gas when I’m down to a quarter of a tank.

And when it comes to writing, it’s like I have my own back seat driver reading over my shoulder and questioning every move I make. Sometimes, before I can even get an idea out of my head, the voice is already shutting it down. “Oo no, you don’t want to write that,” the voice tells me. “It’s lame. It’s stupid.”

“Can’t I just go down this road and see where it takes me?” I argue with the voice. “I mean maybe you’re right, and it WILL end up being a waste of time, but it could also lead to somewhere good.”

And the voice is like, “okay, do what you want, but you know I’m right.” And of course it derails me, because how do you keep going after that?

I understand this inner voice is trying to help me. It’s trying to keep me from embarrassing myself or looking foolish. It wants me to succeed, and honestly, it has served me well in my life. And I also know it IS actually possible to write with a back seat driver breathing down your neck. I know because I’ve been doing it for years. But of course, it slows you down, and it’s totally annoying. It’s like running with a backpack full of bricks…

…Which is one of the reasons I hired a writing coach to help me finish my novel. Her name is Robin, and she’s been helping me identify the roadblocks I’ve set up that are keeping me from my creativity. Honestly, she’s pretty great.

In one of our recent sessions, I told her about the voice.

Robin says we all have this voice. She calls hers her gremlin.

“What I do is put my gremlin in front of the TV and give it a cookie,” she explained to me. “And then I go off to write.”

“So do you literally talk to the Gremlin?” I asked with a bit of trepidation.

Robin said she didn’t need to talk to her Gremlin anymore because she’d been doing it for so many years. Her gremlin is basically trained; it knows the drill. When she’s ready to write, she hands the gremlin a cookie. It heads to the family room to watch TV, and she goes off to work.

I’ll admit, this sounded a little kooky to me. But I decided to give it a try.

That very same day when I got home from my meeting with Robin, after I’d had some lunch and took care of my chores, I spoke to my gremlin. “Okay, I’m going to my office to work for a few hours,” I said. Out loud. “Nothing I write right now is going anywhere. I’m just trying some stuff. I don’t have to use it. So let me take some chances. You stay here. Read a book or something. Okay?”

And maybe this will sound strange, but it worked! I went to my office and I wrote for the whole afternoon and I came up with a lot of stuff — that I actually liked. So now I’ve started doing it regularly. Before I go off to write I ask my gremlin to give me my space. Just like keeping a cup of coffee nearby, it’s become one of my rituals.

The other day I read an interview with the filmmaker Jennifer Fox in the L.A. Times. Years ago I’d seen Fox’s documentary “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman” and loved it immensely, so I was excited to hear what she was up to. Apparently she had just made her first narrative film, “The Tale,” and it was debuting at Sundance. As a documentary filmmaker, it had been hard for her to get a narrative feature made, and she’d had to fight a lot of battles for a lot of years to get it done. But in the end, she concluded: “I’m not always comfortable saying, ‘This is my story,’ but that’s what I can offer…Being an artist isn’t comfortable. We are going to die. Our lives are short. Time is passing. I’m 58. I don’t have much time — let me do something meaningful, or else, why? I want to live. And the only way to do that is to risk.”

And there it was again. That word. Another artist I admired was revealing the secret to creativity to me. So I had to listen. I knew what I had to do if I wanted to finish my book. I had to give my gremlin a cookie and get on with it. I had to take a risk.