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"Lightness is radical."
Describe yourself as a maker/artist/creative
Based in Baltimore. I’ve been doing a lot but the thing that has always been constant, and the thing at the core, is that I’m a writer. That’s where it all began and, even when the medium isn’t words on a page, everything I do comes from the writer’s frame of reference.
What are you currently working on?
I have two main projects (outside of working my regular job). I’ve been building this idea called Off Peak, which comes from a desire to push back against the emptiness of hustle culture and all of the burnout that comes with it. The most visible and significant expression of that so far is Off Peak Radio. Which, interestingly, wasn’t part of the plan at the beginning.
Back in April of 2020—early COVID—I decided to do an online radio show which at the time I called Radio Free Quarantine. I figured that since we weren’t able to go out on Friday nights, I could at least put some tunes together for friends so we could bond around the playlist. Sharing music, for me, has always had this kind of connecting power, and the more personal it is, the more meaningful it is. I eventually stopped calling it Radio Free Quarantine and folded it into the Off Peak idea because I realized it was coming from that same place, the “antidote to the stressors of our culture” place.
Now, something like 40 shows later, it has taken shape. For the music I pull from every genre that I like, and I put it together with the idea that when you listen you’ll be transported a little bit, you’ll find space for pleasure. You’ll hear music that you won’t hear anywhere else, and then I have four short interludes to put ideas into the world that, in my hope, will be good food for thought. So you get music and you get a bit of perspective and philosophy (even poetry). It’s an offering to the world and to all of the folks like me who live in it, whether I know them personally or not.
The other project—and this one is me to some extent telling you this so I can speak it into existence—is a bit of a full-circle thing. Way back in the day I used to write comic books, and my favorite one that I wrote was a book called Last Exit Before Toll. For something like 15 years now I have been wanting to follow that book up and finish telling the story that I started there, and I have finally begun to do that. Hopefully more to come on that over the course of the year.
Has your work shifted in response to the pandemic? How?
The pandemic has been an impetus. I wouldn’t even necessarily say that my work “shifted” in response, I’d say that in a lot of ways my work began in response. To be honest I’m one of those people who used to make a lot of art, and, as I got older and got more into working a regular job, the making fell behind.
Early on in the pandemic, though, I realized with clarity that there would be no “going back”—that we would eventually do new things, but the “normal” we once knew was gone for good. That led me to looking at everything with a different perspective, and I wasn’t interested in trying to return to life as it had been. And even if I had a moment of fear here or there where I did want that, it wasn’t happening anyway. So what then?
For me, “what then” has been increased vitality with regard to the things that I make and want to make, up to and including how I think of life itself (which I do think is a highly creative thing).
In your opinion, what role does the creative process play in helping us confront our “new” reality?
I think that the high purpose of creativity, insofar as it intersects with other humans, is to prompt. Not to answer or reinforce, but to prod open. The point isn’t to define what’s on the other side after that opening, but simply to show that there is in fact another side.
That is by definition lonely work. People, myself included, like to see more of what they know, and we like that others are there with us. Even when it doesn’t feel good. It’s easier being together sharing something bad than it is moving out on a limb into something good.
So this is what’s so interesting about this moment: because this is a time of strife and pain, and because there is so much negativity, that human desire for the comfort of what is known means that relief is a radical notion. Lightness is radical. Affection is radical and love is actually radical—being into things as opposed to them. I realize how corny that might sound but it’s true.
Everything I’m trying to do now, with everything that involves being creative, up to and especially how I construct my life and imagine how it’s possible to live, is wrapped up in this opening idea. Along with that is my hope, for myself and generally for people, that we can see this potential laid out before us as we start to build whatever comes after COVID.
To bring that around to more directly answering your question, it’s the creative process that fuels all of this.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Just one thing I’d add to all of the above, which is that it’s also, along with everything I’ve suggested, important to acknowledge that this is a strange and difficult time. I wouldn’t want anything I’m saying here to suggest otherwise, or suggest that feeling the strange and feeling the difficult is in any way wrong. But I think it’s important to feel it and then feel other things too, and those other things can include creative impulses, optimism for possibility, and intent for change. I think we’re cheating ourselves if we ignore either side of the coin, especially right now.
See more of Neal's work here.