On this beautiful sunny midwest morning (hey, do I sound like I’m from California??), I had the joy of speaking about therapeutic writing to a group of folks at Generations of Hope, a very cool multi-generational community. At Generations of Hope,”children adopted from foster care find permanent and loving homes, as well as grandparents, playmates and an entire neighborhood designed to help them grow up in a secure and nurturing environment.” This morning at Hope Meadows, we talked about writing, about how it needs compassion about self-permission in order to thrive. Going through the world with an open and watchful heart really helps too. And then they asked me the question everyone asks about ongoing writing which is, “How do I find time to do it?” Here is the secret to answering this question…
My apologies for not beginning this year’s Lenten blog on the first of Lent, but I have a good reason. I was the victim of the ferocious digestive virus that has been circling our city like a plague of locusts. First Gabe got it. He puked all over himself while sitting in his car seat on the way to daycare. Oh, the crying. The stench. The longing for a new car seat. And he had been totally okay ten minutes before. Then last Monday, I was at work, fine one minute, and doubled over in pain the next. And seriously, the only thing I could think of to do was to call my mother who lives 800 miles away. I didn’t, but still.
So, I spent Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras cursing every morsel of food I had eaten in the last week, and Ash Wednesday piously fasting, but only because if I ate anything I’d see it again in some form in about 30 minutes. Anyway. Welcome to Lent 2011. For some background on both Lent and why I am writing this Lenten blog, please click here. At least if you read that, it will lift the tone of this post out of the toilet. Literally.
One of the books that has been, to steal a phrase from Jennifer’s comment on yesterday’s post, an oxygen mask for me lately is The Artist in the Office: How to Creatively Survive and Thrive Seven Days a Week (or AITO for those in the know) by Summer Pierre. AITO started out as a handmade ‘zine, motivated, as I understand it, partly by boredom and frustration, and partly by the desire to speak to everyone who feels like they are living two lives: their “wage slave” life and their creative life: “Day after day, this is how it goes: You get up, go to work–and save your ‘real’ self for the cracks and corners of your off time. Your 9-5 work might pay the bills, but if it’s not giving you an outlet for your pent-up creativity, it’s time to make a change” (from the back cover). The ‘zine was a hit, and is now a real live book, available on Amazon and other real live book selling places.
Yesterday marked the halfway point of my “Radical Lent: a Poetic Approach to 40 Days in the Wilderness” Project. As it is a project, and as I often remind my students of the importance of “early deliverables” that give you a chance to step back and ask yourself how things are going, I’ve decided to do that today.
Actually, I began this blog, From the Heart, in earnest on February 15th. It was already lurking in my private cyberspace closet for a little while before then, but on February 15th, I took what felt like an audacious and presumptuous step, and asked people to consider subscribing to my blog. Then I texted my sister to say that I felt sick.
Sometimes complete strangers say things that can change your whole life. That is not what this post is about, though. This post is about something that happened to me several years ago on a flight from Newark to Chicago, where I was sitting next to an older Asian man who, out of nowhere, turned to me and asked, “Do you want to know the secret to being happy?” As I happened to be wondering exactly that thing at exactly that moment, I said yes, I would indeed like to know the secret to being happy. I can still see him, silhouetted by that white above-the-clouds light that comes through the windows on planes. I turned my body towards him, he raised his index finger and said, “There are three things.” And that, my friends, is all she wrote. I don’t remember what he told me. I FORGOT whatever it was he said.
Good writers seem to know a lot about neuroses. Anne Lamott, for example, is so exactly right when she describes her students’ fears about being writers because she is smart, observant, and has experienced them all herself: “[They] want to know why they feel so crazy when they sit down to work, why they have these wonderful ideas and then they sit down and write one sentence and see with horror that it is a bad one, and then every major form of mental illness from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout—the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self-loathing, the inability to track one thought to completion, even the hand-washing fixation, the Howard Hughes germ phobias. And especially, the paranoia” (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life).
Last week for some New Jersey public schools it was Winter Break. On Monday, one of my friends in Pennsylvania posted on Facebook that her “togetherness quotient” had expired; on Tuesday, my sister, who was at home in New Jersey with her three small children, texted me to ask who was responsible for the concept of “winter break.” (People with no children and timeshares in Arizona, apparently). On Wednesday, we discussed the equally absurd notion of taking small children “on vacation,” and on Thursday she reported that one of her sons had asked her a question that started with “What if…” and she had interrupted him before he could go any farther. “I just couldn’t take it,” she said. “I even said to him, ‘please stop, I can’t handle that kind of question right now.’ And yes, I’m a terrible person.”
“There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer.” (Gertrude Stein, 1874-1946)
1. Is everyone creative?
2. Why does it feel wrong to say no and not quite right to say yes?
3. What is the difference between creating something and making something?
4. In Hebrew only God can create; humans make and God creates. What does this mean?
5. Does being “creative” always involve restlessness?
6. If creativity a force, where does it come from and where does it go?
7. Why does creativity seem so far away sometimes, and so close other times?
8. Is being creative a choice?
9. Is not being creative a choice?
10. Why are we attracted to the idea of creative genius?
11. Why would having answers to these questions feel both comforting and dissatisfying at the same time?
Joyce Carol Oates wrote: “[Emily Dickinson] was not an alcoholic, she was not abusive, she was not neurotic. Neurotic people who go through life make better copy, and people talk about them, tell anecdotes about them. The quiet just do their work.”
Still wondering about creativity, still immersing myself in some of the vast quantities of material out there, and am very grateful for all of the amazing work that has been and is being done to explore the connections between creativity and “madness.” But to steal (and probably badly paraphrase) a line from “Beowulf”: “tis not very far from here and ’tis not a pleasant place.”
Poet David Whyte has said that stifling your creativity is not a passive act; he likens it to letting the smoke build up in a chimney–the greasy, black smoke that slowly backs up into your whole house, and if you did light a match to it, it would burn your house down. This is suffocating and paradoxical imagery–you need to allow creativity to move as a force, but some forms of its movement are life-threatening.
Continue reading “Blood-Red and Black/More on Creativity”
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.