TJ Volgare: Writer and Filmmaker

Creatives in Conversation: I believe that we can learn so much from each other and I am fascinated by the ways in which artists of all mediums move through the creative process. Each month I feature a different local artist as we discuss the challenges and joys that come from accessing and living with their creativity.

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TJ Volgare is a writer and filmmaker from the Shenandoah Valley. He lives in Durham N.C. with his Esposita, Diana and their dog, Sadie. TJ is an adjunct professor of Film, Theology & Film, and Film History at NCSU and Duke University respectively. He sits on the Board of Duke's Initiatives in Theology and The Arts and is a proud elder at Durham Presbyterian Church. After earning his MFA in Film Production from U.S.C. in 2008 he worked extensively in post-production. In 2009 he was an apprentice under Writer/Director Terrence Malick in the making of his Palm D'or masterpiece, "The Tree of Life."  He's currently co-writing and editing a documentary on Arthur Ashe and his role in the Civil Rights Movement. 

What does living creatively mean to you?

I think it’s about living with awareness, discerning the story that is happening in your life as it’s happening. So for me it’s living your life as a story, deconstructing it as such. It means living originally. There’s that quote, and I’m paraphrasing, “If your path is clear and you know exactly what to do, chances are you’re probably on somebody else’s path.”

For me living creatively even comes down to the way you live in your house. My wife will tell you that I treat our house like every room is an opportunity to construct a scene. I’m constantly trying to create an environment that's evocative and emotional.

When did you first realize that you wanted to pursue your creativity and make it a part of your life and how did it transform you … or did it?

I knew since I was almost too young … I had an awareness that I could not be satisfied in life unless I was living creatively. I realized very young that I liked to live in my imagination, that I enjoyed movies more than school, books more than other things.

I found a lot of solace and coherence and enjoyment and pleasure and reassurance through stories. I think every kid is captivated by the magic of watching a story on screen. I watched movies and said, “this is a place where you can have a thought and they have this magical factory somewhere where you can essentially have an impossible scenario that makes you smile or laugh or think or feel fear … and I can go and make believe.” And whenever I’m on set I always have to remind the adults that we’re in the make believe business.

Because you can so easily forget that.

Absolutely. You start to think you’re in the architecture business and everybody wants formulas to expedite the creative process so they can make the creative process less unpredictable than it actually is. But it is unpredictable. It’s painful. Every time you walk into it you don't know if you’re going to walk out of it five hours later with three sentences, ten, zero or just a lot more self loathing (laughs). As a kid, I did a lot of coping with creativity and I found a lot of hope through experiencing art and stories.

First, somehow we need to formally oppose the idea that creativity is adolescent. It’s not a hobby. What you’re doing is a real thing, it’s caring for people, it’s bringing their story to other people.
— TJ Volgare

What have been or what are your biggest creative challenges and how have you moved through them?

I’m just going to call it debt. One of the most insidious obstacles to creativity is the accumulation of debt. Now you can interpret that to mean whatever you think it should mean. Any debt which essentially compromises the time that you have to create. Any accumulation [of debt] will obligate you to some other entity with values and commitments and ideologies. And you will spend much of your life negotiating that.

Creativity often comes from a place of privilege.

Yes, and it takes courage to be an artist because it takes courage to say, “I’m hungry but art is more important to me than food.” I’ve said this many times, much to the chagrin of my wife and friends. I’ve said to my wife, “Yes, we are financially in a sensitive situation but if I don't take the time to write this then I’m not being true to myself. And I’m also not expressing confidence in myself and my work."

I have to say to the work, this is work, this is serious, I’m not sitting down and having fun, I’m not playing Parcheesi here, I’m going in and I’m taking a risk.

I incurred a lot of debt in graduate school. If I could go back in time I don’t know what I would tell that young kid with dreams. I don't know if I would tell him to leave or drop out. In school all of this debt was so much more theoretical and then all of a sudden you get launched into the world and the debt is real. That “get a job” thing was terrifying because I suddenly realized I was an artist in a world that doesn't understand and therefore can’t value art.

That's literally my next question. How do you think we can get our world to value creativity and art more highly and what do you think our world would look like if we did?

First, somehow we need to formally oppose the idea that creativity is adolescent. It’s not a hobby. What you’re doing is a real thing, it’s caring for people, it’s bringing their story to other people. I think that kind of opposition starts in schools, maybe? I went to public school but I know that we didn't have theater classes. We did a play one year and I remember all the athletes got the main roles. And it’s like, “Can you give us one thing?” (laughs)

Creative writing was never a part of the assignment. If you wanted to do a creative assignment it was for extra credit or you had to ask for special permission. I didn't experience any mentors at the high school level or middle school level. The idea that creativity isn’t important or necessary or that it’s what children do or what people do for a hobby needs to be completely rejected and formally opposed.

And furthermore, if you grow up in a family of blue collar or working professionals who have a very practical and pragmatic job it is extremely hard to be the artist in the environment. What do you build? I build stories. Oh, who pays you for that? Well, right now nobody. Really? Then how can you call that a job? Because I know I am producing something for people and I know that I am bringing my clarity back to people.

Plus you’re trying to have relationships with other people too. There is a reason artists get isolated. It’s because I work forty hours a week and then I work forty hours a week.

 (laughs) You’re making it sound really fun.

It’s why you know you’re an artist when you know because it is hard. But when you’re in the room and you shut the door and you don't have any other choice and you've made it your business to learn how to negotiate that difficulty and do it with integrity [that’s the ultimate goal].

The automobile started as a creative concept, the skyscraper started as a creative concept.

So let’s not silo it.

Not at all. And it does get silo’d. So when you have a world that values art, I think we’d have more empathic people, especially young people. We’d have less desperation and more protest. More creative people would produce a more radical, critical, curious and empathic world.

To be an artist is to pay attention. It’s a directed awareness. Be awake, look around, pay attention.

Have you ever gone through a time when you weren’t creative and how did you get through that?

I hope you put into parenthesis “TJ chuckles and laughs.” I have absolutely gone through that. Multiple times.

How did you get through it?

I have learned to interpret resistance in me not as a sign that I’m not doing the work or that the idea isn’t there or that the output will not come. As a younger writer that's where I would go immediately, this place of despair, which was, I cannot write, I cannot create. There is some pathology that comes from the artist who runs to the page when he or she is challenged by something or overwhelmed.

I’ve always used stories to comprehend and make sense of my life. So when I am blocked it feels very scary, it feels as if I am not alive or not doing the most meaningful work I can do. So I start to feel trapped by the real world.

Now over time I have discerned that blockage to be a signal to do something else. Other writers have said this, you know, the cliché of go for a walk. But that's not even what I’m saying although that's helpful.

When I’m blocked there’s sadness, there’s despair, there’s self loathing, feelings like you’re not good enough, this is easier for other writers, you start comparing yourself to other writers, which is poison.  You can only compete with yourself.

So it's a signal to go to a museum or listen to a song, or to go and live life, to sit down, interact with something or someone, hear their story. Creativity cannot be a solitary experience.

Ultimately you cannot derive your validation by what’s done at the end of the work day as an artist. First of all because art takes a long time. You have to reach a level of maturity where you don’t get wrapped up into that validation.  I haven’t gotten there yet.

But anyway, there are two seasons: input and output. Blockage can be a sign that you need some input. If I am really blocked I like to do something physical, and I’m not talking about the gym, I’m talking about getting into the yard and picking up a shovel and digging.

When you create something it’s not going to feel good all the time.

That's an assumption I want to push back on. A lot of people think writing, or any creative work, should feel great all the time. I’ve heard from many writers who say that when it feels great it feels really great but there are a lot of times when you’re slogging through.

You have to be able to sit and write ten pages and if you are obsessively editing those sentences you’ll end up with four words. What I’m still working through is detaching from the desire for completion. [The desire for completion] will have you writing too fast. [The desire for completion] will essentially lead you to not listen to good feedback.

Do you have any creative resources, books you've read, movies you've seen?

I guess this is my first attempt at a TJ Volgare reading and watching list. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. 100 Years of Solitude, everything by Faulkner but especially The Sound and The Fury. Two movies I saw when I was a kid, to remind me of my original impulses, why I got into it in the first place: Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Beetlejuice.

Most of what I read from age twenty to twenty-five were plays: Sam Shepard, Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams, they gave me permission to be strange and exploratory, to write surrealistically.

That’s a great list. Although I will point out that there were no women on that list.

You should point that out and I’d put on there Toni Morrison’s Jazz, which was one of the most profound experiences. Lynne Ramsay is a film maker, she made Ratcatcher. She is one of the most lyrical and talented film directors out there. So watch Badlands first -- which is Malick -- and then Ratcatcher. That's the movie that convinced me that there is a way to appropriate conventions from Malick’s work in a way that's effective and beautiful and doesn't seem plagiaristic. And she has an original eye; she’s giving you her perspective and point of view. And Anne Lamott. Every time she talks, I tell myself, “I’m a better artist today.”

So my last question is, what advice would you give to a young person who wants to take advantage of their creative gifts?

To live creatively means you’re going to confuse some people. You’re probably going to confuse the people you’ve grown up closest to.

Living honestly, curiously, originally and a life where you are making things ... you can’t tolerate the discomfort and the pain of being an outsider in your own family and social circles without other people around you in community. So, number one, expect to be an outsider.

Now once you’re an outsider your orientation tends to become superior. It’s a coping mechanism, you’re telling everyone else, “You’re conventional, you’re conservative, you’re stupid, you’re a sellout, you’re a conformist.” So being an outsider without becoming a Pharisee is important. But I haven’t been able to tolerate that outsider status without new sacred circles and community. You need to be with people that think the way you’re living is interesting, that want to work together. Find that community.

If you’re making stuff that doesn’t make money it’s going to make people you care about confused. So that does put an onus of responsibility on you to clarify yourself to the people who are confused. Give them an education in empathy. And what you end up doing -- maybe this is the very thing that artists do -- is give a lesson in empathy and compassion and understanding. It is uncomfortable to be different, to be an outsider. Have boldness, clarity of vision and social support. It’s important not to internalize the message that you’re different and therefore something is wrong.

If you’re going to be an artist you’re going to have to designate time for making art. And most frequently that time will not be compensated. So take that time seriously. Protect that space. It’s sacred space. Manage your money well. Save.

From the divine to the practical.

Absolutely you have to be practical. We think that being creative gives us permission to be impractical. But then you go to film school and its incredibly practical. I always thought I got into this creative business so I wouldn’t have to be practical. (laughs) Such a fallacy.

This interview has been edited and condensed.