This is an updated version of an interview on creativity and the creative process first published a few years ago on author Bill Jones, Jr.'s blog, This Page Is Intentionally Blank. It seemed timely to share it again in this NaNoWriMo month, whether are not you are participating in this year’s novel-writing marathon…and whether or not you are a writer.
The Blank Blog: It’s hard to pigeon-hole you with just one label. You’re author, writing and personal growth coach, motivational speaker, screenwriter, mentor, photographer. … How do you see yourself? Is one of these titles more “you” than another?
Mark David Gerson: I’m so glad you’re finding it hard to pigeon-hole me. I hate being slotted into categories and file folders! Seriously, whatever else I have done in my life, it all and always seems to come back to writing. As for the form (author v. screenwriter), I’m not sure that matters so much as the storytelling aspect of the enterprise.
In fact, now that I think about it as I write this (I do some of my best thinking while writing!), perhaps “storyteller” is the common factor in each of those labels. The bottom line is, whether I’m writing, speaking, coaching, mentoring, drawing or photographing, what I’m really doing is telling stories. From that perspective, the death of storytelling that figures so prominently in The MoonQuest, the first book of my Q'ntana Trilogy of fantasy novels, takes on an even more significant and personal dimension.
TBB: For those who haven’t yet read The MoonQuest, can you tell us a little about the story?
MDG: Imagine a land where storytelling is banned, where storytellers have been put to death, where dreams and visions are outlawed, where imagination has been stripped from the land and its people. This is the Q’ntana of The MoonQuest, a land where, as Toshar, the main character, puts it, “‘once upon a time’ is a forbidden phrase and fact is the only legal tender.” In this land, legend has it, the moon has been so saddened by the silence and tyranny that she has cried tears that have extinguished her light. As a result, the moon has not been seen for many generations. The MoonQuest, then, is the journey undertaken by a reluctant Toshar and his three companions to restore story and vision to the land and to rekindle the light of the moon.
TBB: The MoonQuest has won awards and accolades. Now, I see it is part of a trilogy, which can be both exciting and challenging. How do you balance ensuring you have new stories to tell, with keeping the tone and quality of the original book?
MDG: Yes, The MoonQuest has won six awards, including the Independent Publishers Award Gold Medal IPPY, a New Mexico Book Award and a Canada Book Award. And while no one writes for the awards, they are still wonderfully gratifying and validating.
Fortunately, that balance you asked about is not part of my job description. My job is to listen for the stories that already exist in the airwaves through which my Muse broadcasts and then to put them into words to the best of my imperfect ability. Or put another way, my job is to write the book my story wants written — the way it wants it written.
While I knew before I finished my first draft that The MoonQuest would launch a trilogy, and even knew the titles of the sequels early on, I had no idea what The StarQuest and The SunQuest would be about or how they would work with The MoonQuest story. Once I completed the two sequels — in other words, once I finally knew the story! — I was amazed and in awe. My mind could never have worked those puzzle pieces together on its own. Which is why, when it comes to writing, my credos are “the story is smarter than I am” and “the story knows best”!
TBB: Can you tell us about your venture into screenwriting and filmmaking? How was the transition from book to film?
MDG: I’m finding the whole process of working with the same story in multiple forms (novel, screenplay and stage musical) fascinating and illuminating.
I wrote the first draft of The MoonQuest novel in the third person. But all subsequent drafts, as well as The StarQuest and SunQuest novels, are in the first person. Writing screenplay adaptations offers me the rare privilege of telling the same story twice, each time from a different point of view: first person in the novel, third person in the screenplay. Adapting the stories a third time, for the stage as a musical, offers new storytelling opportunities and challenges.
As well, each version has fed the others. I wrote the first draft of The MoonQuest screenplay when I thought I already had a completed, publication-ready draft of the novel. But some of the changes I made in the story for the screenplay were so compelling that I went back and retrofitted them into the manuscript. I had similar experiences going back and forth between the The StarQuest and SunQuest novel manuscripts and screenplays. With The SunQuest, I wrote the screenplay first – so that was an adaptation in reverse!
I had never adapted a novel for film when I began The MoonQuest script, let alone tackled any kind of screenplay. And although I read some great books and received some terrific and inspiring instruction at The Screenwriters Conference in Santa Fe (where I was, a few years later, gratifyingly back as an instructor), I approached the adaptation the way I approach all my writing: by trusting that the story itself would guide me. Which it did…well enough that a production company is seeking to produce my screenplay. (I write more about my screenwriting process in Organic Screenwriting: Writing for Film, Naturally, a book I wrote because I never found a screenwriting book that suited my less structured, more intuitive approach to the craft.)
TBB: You must be pretty busy with all your interests. How do you balance your time?
MDG: I take the same intuitive approach to my life as I do to my writing. While other coaches and instructors recommend applying a regular routine to creative production, that never works for me for very long. Rather, I remain as in-the-moment as I can and follow wherever the inspiration leads me — in my life as well as in my writing. That way of living and writing is both exhilarating and, at times, terrifying. But it does keep things in an organic balance!
TBB: In your book, The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write, you have a chapter entitled, “Thirteen Rules for Birthing Your Book.” I won’t list them all here, because folks need to buy the book. My favorite is #7, “Your book is older than you think.” Can you expound on that a little here?
MDG: My point with this so-called rule (“so-called” because my Rule #1 for everything is that, truly, there are none!) was a version of what I said here earlier, that our stories exist in the airwaves around us. More often than not, they’ve been hovering there for a long time, patiently waiting for us first to take notice, then to take action…“to allow the ideas of your heart,” as I put it in The Voice of the Muse “to find expression through your mind.” That allowing is important. As I suggested in answer to your previous question, creation (like life) is not about forcing things to happen. Creation is about listening for those timeless stories and then letting them sift through us onto the page. Like the God of Genesis, our job is to let creation happen.
By the way, the response to those 13 rules for book-birthing was so encouraging that I wrote Birthing Your Book...Even If You Don't Know What It's About. Like The Voice of the Muse, I'm gratified to say, it's also an award-winner.
TBB: I love to ask writers this one. What book(s) do you wish you’d written? Why?
MDG: I could say that I wish I had already written and completed the final book in my Sara Stories series of novels; I'm dying to find out what happens to the main character! But that wouldn't really answer you. Seriously, though, that’s a question I’ve never considered. And while there are many, many authors I admire and many, many books I have loved over the years, I’m not sure that there any I wish I’d written, because that would mean I would have to have been someone other than myself with a voice other than my own to have accomplished it. With that disclaimer out of the way, the one book — or series of books — that leaps to mind are the Narnia books, probably for their engaging blend of adventure and subtle spirituality.
TBB: For those of us with very shy muses, how would you suggest we coax ours to cooperate more readily?
MDG: You may not like this answer… Muses are never shy. It’s writers who are deaf or, rather, choose not to listen. Muses are never uncooperative. It’s writers who refuse to cooperate. Muses never hold back. Writers hold back all the time!
In those moments when you believe your Muse is not working with you, it’s important to look within. What are we not willing to hear? Which story are we refusing to write? What are we reluctant to face within ourselves that would emerge in a story we are doing our best to ignore? Which belief or way of life is our Muse challenging? Where are we not surrendering unconditionally to our Muse, and to the story it has for us?
Answer those questions, move forward in your writing from those answers, and I’m fairly certain you’ll never encounter a shy, uncooperative Muse again!
TBB: Being a photographer as well as a writer, like you, I take a lot of inspiration from photographs. In effect, the camera is my muse. How did you create the world in The Q’ntana Trilogy?
MDG: I’m not sure I can answer the question, for reasons that may have already become apparent from my previous answers. I didn’t consciously create the Q’ntana worlds. I allowed them to spill through me onto the page. I didn’t plan, plot or prepare. I simply wrote and the worlds created themselves through the words that found their way through me.
In fact, I had no plans to write a MoonQuest, nor did I have a conscious desire to write a fantasy novel, let alone a trilogy. The MoonQuest birthed itself during a writing workshop I was facilitating when, in an unprecedented in-the-moment inspiration, I did the same exercise I had presented to participants. What I wrote that evening became the opening scene of the first draft of a novel I knew nothing about. From there, I just kept writing, discovering the story as I went along, until I was done. The StarQuest and SunQuest stories emerged similarly. (I write about that magical MoonQuest experience in my memoir, Acts of Surrender: A Writer's Memoir and in my upcoming book, The Way of the Imperfect Fool: How to Bust the Addiction to Perfection That’s Stifling Your Success…in 12½ Super-Simple Steps!)
TBB: What do you like most about your work? What do you want people to take from it?
MDG: In The Voice of the Muse: Answering the Call to Write, I encourage readers to abandon control, because trying to control the creative process is, at worst, a sure ticket to writer’s block. At best, it produces unimaginative, formulaic results. The same applies in our lives. The more control and rigidity we apply, the fewer miracles we experience.
I love that my work is about inspiring people to open to that kind of freedom, the freedom to live and create from the deepest heart of their being, the freedom to be in the moment — in life as much as in creativity. For isn’t life the ultimate creative act?
If you take one thing from my work, I would hope it would be to see the possibility of that freedom and to discover some first steps toward achieving it.
TBB: You are granted one wish, and are allowed to choose any writer, living or dead, as your mentor? Whom do you choose?
MDG: I’d probably choose Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time. I didn’t discover A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels until I was an adult, when I also discovered, through her nonfiction writings, L’Engle’s deep spirituality, one that informed her creativity and her life. While L’Engle’s spirituality found its expression through the Episcopal Church and mine is largely unstructured, she was a profound influence on my writing and in my life. In a sense, she already was a mentor without knowing it. Now, if she were still alive, I’d just like to thank her for that.
TBB: How can readers find your work?
MDG: You'll find all my books – my Q'ntana fantasies, my Sara Stories novels, my books for writers, my memoirs and my Way of the Fool personal growth books – on my website, from most Amazon sites, from select other online booksellers and in all major ebook stores. And my recording, The Voice of the Muse Companion: Guided Meditations for Writers, is on CD on Amazon (and on my website) and as an MP3 download from my website as well as from iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and other online music sellers.
Finally, you can find/contact me through my website, Twitter and Facebook