I’m in the midst of preparing for a Heartland Writing workshop on creativity that I’m giving on January 30th, and being “in the midst of” is just what it feels like. There is so much material on creativity out there, so many points of entry into it as a “topic”–creativity as a marketable workplace asset, creativity as a skill to be taught, as a mode of behavior, as a stereotype involving either chaos, alcohol and mental illness, or bright colors, trips to Michael’s, and pieces of felt.
The two biggest categories for me with regard to creativity are: safe and unsafe. Is being creative safe or unsafe or both? I don’t know, and that’s why I’m doing the workshop, which is called Creativity and the Quest for Meaning. My planning for this workshop has been stealth planning–read a little bit of this, think about a little of that; try not to feel overwhelmed. Mostly it’s been sitting in or next to the midst of material in my head, heart and study, and closing my eyes and not thinking at all.
So far, here’s what I’ve decided: I’m going to begin with a poem called “Lost” by David Wagoner, which is a retelling of a Northwestern Native American “teaching poem.” It is supposed to be the answer to the question a child might ask an elder: “What happens when I am lost in the woods?” It goes like this:
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
“Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems,” University of Illinois Press,1999 and Who Shall Be the Sun?, University of Indiana Press, 1978
My workshop is going to look at the connections (both true and mythologized) between creativity and madness. I have lots of questions about this, and have been frightened and fascinated by it for a long time, ever since I saw, as a young teenager, a book of Diane Arbus photographs. Madness is perhaps the ultimate state of lostness, or perhaps it is not. When you have lost connection to yourself, you can go “mad.” When you have lost connection to others, to reality, you can go “mad.” This is lonely beyond lonely and sad beyond sad. And obviously there are degrees of madness.
But creativity involves being willing to get lost, to admit to the reality that we are lost much of the time, have no real control over how our lives go; it involves fearlessness, and paying attention, and explores both internal and external frontiers. It refuses to insist on a way out, and it values guidance. So how do you get lost and not lose everything? And if you lose everything, how do you not give up hope?
In November, I hosted an evening conversation on therapeutic writing, and the participants generated “mind maps,” using each of these words as starting points:
We wrote these on two big post-it pages, and I have them hanging on the wall in my study because I’ve been wanting to write about them in some way. Now it seems lovely and absurd that I am wondering about being lost while I have these two “maps” hanging on my wall, because it’s life is reminding me (patiently and again) that it does not really require my strategic participation at all, just my attention.
Writing (and other acts of creativity) offer both the risk of being lost and the almost certain result of being found. Being lost through creative acts is both an internal and external activity–you go into yourself and (hopefully) come out again, but you also enage with the world, paying attention to every tree and branch, and you take it into yourself and try and make something from it. And ideally, there is connection (see all the lines on the maps?)–to yourself, to truth, to the world around you, to others.
Most of the books I am reading right now talk about the value of, to use a deliberately vague term, emotional disequilibrium, because being in this state forces you to acknowledge that things are not right. It forces you to listen to your life, to explore the possibility that, as poet and writer Gwyneth Lewis posits in Sunbathing in the Rain, her phenomenal (and cheerful) book about depression writes, depression (one kind of madness) is like a crime that has been committed against yourself. Solving it gives you the chance to remake your life, and in this way, it is the passage to authentic presence and true creativity.
One of my favorite fiction writers, Marian Keyes, wrote in her monthly newsletter that she could not really write much because she is laid low with a crippling depression. The comments and support that flooded in were overwhelming. Her books (which are often put in the “chick lit” category) have dealt with topics like depression, addiction, infidelity, and domestic violence with humor, courage, skill and honesty. Her writing, like all wonderful and life-giving writing, is about connection, and you don’t get to connect with reality without being eaten alive by it sometimes.
That’s some of what I know about creativity so far. In a few weeks, I hope I’ll know more. Right now, I’m grateful to be able to wonder about it, write about it, think about it. If you want to, let me know what you think about it.