Creativity at a Crossroads

On June 1, 2015, I became a published author.

That’s when my debut novel, the superhero mystery Bounty, went live on Amazon. Six months later, I hit Publish on the follow-up, Blood Ties. Six months after that, Behind the Badge hit virtual bookshelves and I had a full-fledged series on my hands.

On October 2017, I published Notna, a fantasy standalone that reads like Indiana Jones and Buffy the Vampire Slayer stumbled upon each other and discovered the world was coming to an end. Again.

To date, I have six novels to my (pen)name — to say nothing of a short story collection (Legends of the Gem), a non-fiction entry (The Art of Reading), and short stories in three different anthologies. To outsiders, I’ve been quite productive these last six years.

And I suppose to some degree, they’re right.

But allow me to bear my soul a bit in my first foray on this, erm, medium. Writing is hard, especially when juggling it with a full-time job in a demanding field in the middle of a global pandemic (that is still going on, by the way), whether some of us want to admit it or not. I’ve had more time on my hands this past year and a half than I’ve had in a long, long time, and yet my creative productivity has worsened.

I’d be lying if I said that didn’t bother me. I try to be kind to myself, to cut myself some slack. Because as I mentioned, I have that pesky day job. And there’s that damn pandemic. It hasn’t affected me and mine the way it has others, but that doesn’t mean the last however many months haven’t been stressful as hell.

But I’m a creator. I have been as far back as I can remember. Creating things — in my specific case, stories — is what I do. It’s who I am. So to be struggling so mightily with something as seemingly simple as putting words on the page has me facing an existential crisis of sorts. Dramatic? Perhaps, but think of it like this: the one thing you’ve done your entire life, that you enjoy and you’re good at…how would you feel if you started struggling at it?

It’s certainly not a lack of ideas: there are at least four more books in the offing in my series, and I have a concept for another series percolating in my head. To say nothing of the lesbian assassin thriller trilogy that’s also bouncing around in my noggin…it’s not a case where I don’t have any stories to tell. I do. I’ve simply hit a rough patch where the productivity isn’t matching the want, and it has me looking at myself in uncomfortable ways.

It doesn’t help that my work isn’t selling. I know I’m not alone in that regard, and I try not to let my entire worth as a creator rely on whether or not people throw money at me for my work. But there is something disheartening about going weeks at a time, if not months, with no one picking up one of my books — despite my promotional efforts. For someone already prone to numbing self-doubt, that’s something I struggle with.

And yet…I still love being a self-published author. I love that the two stories I grew up wanting to tell have now seen the light of day. I’m not the next Jim Lee or Todd MacFarlane like I had hoped in high school, but Bounty and Notna are out there for the world to see; the characters and tales who shaped me creatively exist outside my own head.

That’s not nothing!

As I grow creatively — and I firmly believe struggles such as this are part of that growth, I really do — I also find myself falling more in love with creativity. Not just my own, but the very concept itself. Creativity is the one thing that truly separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, and I am endlessly fascinated by the human need for expression — and how that leads to the stories, the paintings, the films, the photography, the music we all devour.

The songs that speak to us. The stories that burrow themselves into our souls and latch on. The statues we find by chance at the museum and can’t bring ourselves to look away. My work, my life’s true passion, is part of that vast and beautiful tapestry, and I can’t fathom living a life where I’m not constantly immersing myself in that energy.

Just because I’m not making enough off my books to be a full-time novelist, that doesn’t mean I can turn my back on what’s at the very core of my being. I tried living life ignoring my creative side, years ago, and there are no words to define just how miserable I was. Whether anyone else ever knows it or not, I’m meant to be a writer. I’m meant to create. I’m meant to put what’s in my head and my heart on the page.

My books aren’t just stories. They’re time capsules, full of everything I am, everything I believe, and everything I do. That’s true for every author, from the multimillionaire bestseller to the debut whose name no one yet knows. Maybe that’s why the lack of sales hurts so much; it feels like a rejection of sorts. It feels like someone rejects me when they decide not to click Buy Now. Perhaps that’s a silly and selfish way to look at it, but given what we writers pour onto the page, it’s not that far-fetched.

Yet I still have stories to tell. So I’ll tell them, as only I can. I’ll fight through the discontent and the self-doubt, like I always do, and I’ll keep putting the words on the page.

Because that’s what I do. That’s who I am.

In the meantime? Visit my website, see what I’ve got, and maybe buy yourself a book or two (hell, you’ll get one for free if you sign up for my newsletter. I’m told people like free things).

J.D. Cunegan is a self-published author known for his fast-paced unique brand of storytelling, an avid reader, and lover of all things creative.