When your consuming creative passion is also your career, sometimes your joy turns into terror. Deadlines! Taxes! Bills! Everything becomes dependent on your ability to pull creative coherence out of your brain—not just when you feel like it, but on a daily basis. Writing is how I earn my living, so I must perform. I must produce. And although I love what I do, I don’t have the luxury of sitting back to enjoy it. Being a professional writer is like leaping off a cliff, and discovering that you can fly… and then realizing that once you start flying, you can never land…
A few years back I realized I needed a totally new creative outlet. One where no one was waiting on me to deliver; where I did not have to worry about reviews, or sales. I needed a creative hobby separate and apart from my writing career.
When I was a kid, I was involved in lots of creative things. Too many, really. I drew and painted; I wrote music. I fancied myself a musician, even though I never had the patience to stick with an instrument. I acted, and I sang. For a while, like just about every other teen, I wanted to be a rock star. Then in college, writing emerged as my greatest of all of these passions. Everything else just fell by the wayside. They became hobbies that I’d get back to eventually, but rarely ever did, because when you spend so much of your time writing, there’s not much creativity left at the end of the day. If you put a whole bunch of writers together after a day of writing, you will see the closest thing on Earth to a zombie apocalypse.
I realized that if was going to stay fresh as a writer, I would have to finally find a way cleanse my creative palette.
I had thought about going back to composing music—but that’s pretty close to writing, if you think about it. Creating something, then transcribing it from thought into symbols.
Well, I could play music without having to compose it, couldn’t I? For a whole five minutes in middle school I played the saxophone, so I figured I could go back to that. I ended up buying an alto sax on eBay for about $50 (and $100 shipping charge). It’s actually a pretty good saxophone for $150. And once more, I played it for a whole five minutes. Mainly because when you play music, and you’re bad, everyone knows immediately. When you write a bad book, the only people who really know are the people who open it and cringe. But when you play an instrument, the misery is inflicted upon anyone within earshot. That could be miles if the wind is right. I didn’t mind being a bad saxophone player. I just didn’t want anyone else to know—and since I didn’t have a Cone of Silence installed in my house, I decided my eBay alto sax was best left in my bedroom closet, hidden beneath the boxes of clothes I no longer fit in.
What was required here was something completely different. Something I had never tried before, but was curious about. Then one day I was looking through classes offered to the public from my local community college, and there it was: the answer! A stained glass class! I had always found stained glass fascinating, but knew absolutely nothing about it. How was it done? Do you color the glass yourself? Is it really lead between the pieces of glass? Do you use a blowtorch like in welding? Is the loss of one’s fingers a clear and present danger?
I decided to take the class over the summer with my son Brendan, as a kind of bonding thing. I learned a few things:
1) No, you don’t color the glass, but you can choose from a whole lot of really cool pre-made colored sheets.
2) You don’t have to use lead if you don’t want to. The easier way is using strips of copper foil and solder.
3) No, there’s no blowtorch involved.
4) You’d have to be really, really clumsy to lose a finger, but every once in a while you do cut yourself if you’re not careful.
Brendan and I made a very cool stained glass lizard that now hangs in my house. For him, one stained glass project was enough. But not for me. I was hooked! I bought all the supplies—a glass grinder, multiple types of glass cutters, a soldering iron. I set up a studio in my garage. Neighbors were perplexed by the constant sound of breaking glass coming from my garage as I tossed the discarded shards into the trash basket (the non-violent shattering of glass is remarkably satisfying). I became a connoisseur of color, buying sheets of glass in every shade and texture. At first I would follow patterns I found on line, but then began to alter them, and then design patterns myself.
And here’s the best part: It didn’t matter if I was good or bad—because even really bad stained glass looks awesome. There were no deadlines, and no judgment. It was pure creativity with the tactile element that comes with a craft. I had finally found my creative outlet!
I took the class again—this time with my daughter Erin—and that first day in class I had an idea. A big idea. See, for each of my kids’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, I had taken it upon myself to create the centerpieces for each table. For Brendan, I created 3-D Lord of the Rings dioramas. For Jarrod, whose theme was cruises, I created 3-D collages featuring pictures from all the cruises our family had gone on together. For Joelle, I created really cool Broadway show pieces. With each kid, the pieces I made were more elaborate. I guess I was in competition with myself to out do each previous one.
Erin was the youngest, so these would be the last centerpieces I would make … and I thought … what if she and I created stained glass pieces for each table? She wanted an ocean theme, so we set out to create a whole bunch of sea creatures, about two feet in size, and then we would hang them with fishing line in free-standing frames that sat in the middle of each table.
Well, I was back to deadlines again, because we only had two months to do it. Even so, it was great fun! I couldn’t wait to get up each morning to get to work on them. We made an orca, a seahorse, an angelfish, a turtle, an octopus, a shark, and a jellyfish. Erin did one on her own—a dolphin that graced her table.
We got them done in time, and the stained glass centerpieces were a hit! The sense of accomplishment was sweet.
Now my house is filled with all those sea creatures, and I have plans for a whole bunch of other projects. A 3-D glass fire in my fireplace. A cool space scene skylight. A window featuring a stained glass version of one of my book covers.
I’m sure I’ll get to them eventually … but right now I have books to write. After all, I do still have a day job!
Neal Shusterman is the New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty award-winning books for children, teens, and adults, including The Unwind dystology, The Skinjacker trilogy, Downsiders, and Challenger Deep, which won the National Book Award. He also writes screenplays for motion pictures and television shows. His newest book is Scythe, out now from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. The father of four children, Neal lives in California. Visit him at Storyman.com and Facebook.com/NealShusterman