Creativity is a strange thing. You sit down at your desk, determined to write. (Or paint. Or draw…) And then. Does the creative creature come out to make something wonderful, something beautiful, something inspiring? Likely as not, that creative self inside makes itself absent. “Don’t tell me what to do,” it seems to say. “I’m outdoors capering through that lovely shaft of sunlight, or maybe you can find me down by the urban creek listening for frogs, or sauntering along at the Farmer’s Market watching the brightly colored fruits and vegetables laid out in rows, getting caught up amid the bright and unusual sights. I’m not sitting at some dumb old desk Getting Work Done. No, thank you.”
Yesterday I saw a group of schoolkids, eight or ten of them, trailing along the sidewalk behind a teacher or parent volunteer. Do you think they were walking along solemnly, hands at their sides, staring straight ahead? No, of course not! It was a beautiful Seattle spring day, and to a child they were swinging arms, some of them half-hopping, moving moving moving. What a world there was to explore, it seemed. And then, in the next block, a young woman, white earbuds in her ears, exercise-garbed, sedately and purposefully walked down the pavement. No flinging arms, no half-hopping gait.
What happens to us when we become adults? What makes us so serious about our creativity that we have to box it up, put fences around it, and tell it what it must and mustn’t do? – Don’t make a fool of yourself, don’t fling your arms around as you walk down the sidewalk, even if it’s a lovely warm day and the air feels so good on your hands and your face and you just feel like hopping a few steps. No. We must get that Short Story written, we must Make Progress on that new novel, we must do the sketch for that painting. Life is Serious, mustn’t waste time, after all!
This spring I’ve been working on a new novel. How fervently I want to have a stack of pages completed, a thick file in my computer, a decently long sequence of scenes with wildly interesting characters doing lively and interesting things. Something that will demonstrate how wonderfully creative I am as a writer, as a novelist. Something I can dream of holding in my hand as a book, something people will love to read and get lost in. Instead, I have had to start over, restart a couple of times, come to insights about my writing and the way I write, go back to the seed of an idea, brainstorm new events in the narrative, backtrack and flesh out minor characters, write a new scene or two only to discover they are probably background and won’t be part of a final draft. Somewhere in there I have the thread of a promising story and the beginnings of a quirky character who interests me enough to keep going.
But it’s hard! When you come up against stumbling blocks, when you hit setbacks, it can feel keenly disappointing. One imagines all you have to do is sit down, think up the next thing that will happen, and write it out. How hard can it be? Yet it is. If you’re like me, you can’t just create any schlock. You need to feel the thread is worth following, the language is engaging, the characters are full-bodied and believable. And, creativity is not a thing that will just pour out on demand. At least, not for me.
Taking more walks. Writing a poem a day in April for National Poetry Writing Month. Joining Camp Nanowrimo and being part of a writing “cabin” for 30 days in April. Going to a weekend movie. Watching a TED talk or two. Doing yard work. Journalling.
Above all: trying not to take things too seriously.
Happily I am making some progress. That is something!
Here is a flash piece I wrote recently from a line of Emily Dickinson poetry, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant – / Success in Circuit lies…”.
First it was to the grocery store. Then it was to the framer’s to pick up the picture. Then it was to the gym where to get in several reps and a time on the treadmill. Then it was back to the grocery store for the thing that was forgotten. Then to the dry cleaner’s for that item dropped off earlier in the week. Then to the bank for more cash. Then the library for the stack of books that had seemed so pressing, so welcoming, so interesting when read about in the New York Times Review of Books but which now seemed like nothing but another burden, a weight of items to be bagged and carted and put in the back of the vehicle in the parking lot. Then the coffee bar for more coffee. Then the playground and the movie theater and the skating rink and the mall. Always the mall. Again the mall. Forever the mall. Giggling tweens in the back. A glass of wine would not be amiss just now. A glass of beer even better. Molly’s house, Ashley’s house, Zoe’s house. And back again. The circuit, ever closed, ever open, now making more repetitions, iterations, machinations, and still and still and still meals to be prepared, kids to be put abed, kitchen to be cleaned and dishwashers to be operated. Laundry. Where was that shining literary career dreamed of when leaving MFA school? Columbia, Iowa, NYU. That was where all the gold lay. That was where there was something to be made of one’s mind. Not Dayton Ohio, Springfield Illinois, Salem Oregon. There was something to be said for poetry, for literary criticism, for the intellectual argument published in the New York Times Sunday Review. But now all that was to be said was concerning homework and clean clothes and weekend chores. School did not compare one, did not prepare one, for the disappointment of Life. Did it?