Creativity Series: Chad Thomas Johnston: “When Work Begets Wonder”

Only a few more weeks until the end of the Creativity Series. I’ll be continuing the series in a mysterious, as of yet announced, way on Facebook. Go here to follow along with the future conversation on creativity.

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In the beginning, I created only when the skies rained inspiration—when ideas pelted my brain and irrigated my imagination from above. When inspiration descended and I failed to capture the runoff, it was lost forever.

It was my friend, Kansas City-based artist Danny Joe Gibson (@DJGKCMOUSA on Twitter), who taught me a more practical approach to creativity. At age 33, he has already created well over 2,500 works of art, and posted over 30,000 original photos on Flickr.com. If he only created when inspiration rained down readily, he would need to be Methuselah’s age to create as many pieces as he has.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that Danny does not live in the creative equivalent of the Pacific Northwest, where it rains ideas daily. Instead of waiting for the rain, he does the creative equivalent of a rain dance: He wakes up every morning at 5 am and begins creating in time with the rhythms of his imagination. Sometimes the ideas trickle down. Other days, he finds floods.

But his rain dance is a daily discipline—an act of work that begets wonder.

Somewhere along the way, I decided to follow Danny’s example. I began waking up at 5 am to perform my own writerly rain dances. I knew I loved creating enough that I was not satisfied to do it solely when rainclouds loomed on the horizon. I learned from experience that, if I sat down to create, my work often gave way to wonder, too.

I also learned that if I did not make time for creativity, life would not freely give it to me. Danny and I both have day jobs in the Joe Versus the Volcano sense. At the end of each day, our brains are sizzling in our brainpans like the fried eggs in the frying pans in the anti-drug commercials that dominated network television in the ‘80s. “This is your brain. This is your brain after your day job. This is your brain after your day job with a side of bacon-flavored regret. Any questions?” Fried brains rarely offer much in the way of ideas. But at 5 am, fueled by ambition and coffee, my brain’s yolk intact, I find my footing most days.

I no longer have any interest in waiting for the weather to prompt me to create. Muses come and go as they please. I would say they are fair-weather friends but, for the longest time, my muses primarily appeared precisely when life’s weather turned foul. In my teens and early twenties, I only wrote poetry and songs whenever I was heartbroken over some poor girl who never asked to be the subject of a tragic work of epic scope. In retrospect, I’m a little surprised none of them threw handfuls of Prozac at me.

By creating only when I found myself mired in the same swamp of sadness that claimed Artax the horse in The Neverending Story, I limited my creative output to one decidedly drab emotional hue. But worst of all, creating only under the influence of the muse has the potential to reduce would-be agents of creativity to mere recipients of inspiration.

I recently watched a Swedish film titled As It Is In Heaven, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2005—and rightly so. Directed by Kay Pollock, the film focuses on a renowned orchestra conductor who is forced to pursue a life outside of the glow of the concert spotlight when his health begins to fail him.

Eventually, he finds himself leading a small church choir in the rural town that was his childhood home. He tells the members of his choir—and I am paraphrasing him here—that music is hanging in the air, waiting for people to harvest it, if only they will reach up and bring it down. What initially sounds like foolishness to the choir becomes reality as its members bring melodies worthy of Heaven down to Earth. They do not merely receive the music—they harvest it from the heavens themselves.

Unexpected rains fall from time to time, and I am grateful when they do. But many of the creations I cherish above all others were fueled not by flash floods of inspiration, but by a commitment to create. I walk a strange tightrope, teetering between labor and luck, when I create.

If I do not show up to create with intentionality, I am lucky to recognize the creative opportunities that do manage to surface serendipitously. That is, like a stuffy old codger who’s forgotten how to enjoy himself, I am inclined to open my umbrella when it rains instead of catching the droplets of water on my tongue like a child.

Each day, I watch the sky and perform my rain dances, and work until wonder guides me. But there are other ways to ensure a good rainfall: First, I write exclusively from my particular patch of sunlight. My wife and I have five felines, and there is skylight in our living room that cuts across the floor with the movement of the sun during the day. The cats follow it wherever it goes, as if that light is the Sun of God, and they are its dimwitted disciples.

Like my cats, I follow a patch of sun where writing is concerned. I let my brain guide me, not to ideas that seem like they will please someone else, but to ideas that set my brain alight with excitement. I only write about those things that bring me some amount of joy—that offer the promise of warmth when repeated revisions bring the threat of boredom. So I curl up in the sun, where the ideas are warm and alive, and I write.

I also know that if I do not salt the clouds as well—if I do not engage in the creative equivalent of cloud seeding—all is for naught. So I stack the creative deck. I put the odds in my favor that work will beget wonder—that my rain dance will actually lead to rain.

I load my brain with culture: the works of writers I admire, films of all flavors (including Swedish ones, of course), books, and music. I pour all of these things into my brain and, as I engage in the creative process, I find the clouds are saturated like colossal sponges—ready to yield buckets full of ideas. The old adage, “What goes up must come down,” is apropos here: If I store up cultural treasures in my mind, they percolate there, and the result is a steady trickle of associations, ideas, and possibilities.

In the end, then, the first keystroke in a piece of writing is not just a physical act—at least not for me. It’s like training for an athletic event, albeit an extremely sedentary one that makes my posture even worse than it already is. I rain dance in my desk-chair until the words begin to dance onscreen. Eventually—the rains fall.


Chad is a writer, blogger, artist, singer-songwriter, and publicist who resides in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife Rebekah, their daughter Evangeline, and five felines. He is represented by Seattle-based literary agent Jenée Arthur, who is currently shopping his manuscript, “The Stained-Glass Kaleidoscope: Essays at Play in the Churchyard of the Mind,” to publishing houses. Visit him on the web atwww.chadthomasjohnston.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Saint_Upid.

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16 thoughts on “Creativity Series: Chad Thomas Johnston: “When Work Begets Wonder”

  1. Thanks for this post and all the lovely images. I’m reminded of something that William Faulkner said, “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morn­ing.” As a writing teacher, I’ve seen students with talent fall by the wayside while they were surpassed by someone who just kept showing up.

  2. Love this post! My day job is not quite at the level of a “Joe v. the Volcano” brain suck, but inspiration is hard to find after putting in the hours there. Thanks for reminding me that I need to show up daily to find the muses, not just in inclimate weather. :)

  3. Thanks for all the comments, everyone! :) You should all know I have a new development in this whole writing thing. As of Sept. 1, I will be a stay-at-home-dad/writer, so I will no longer need to write around my day job. I will even have daycare for my daughter two mornings a week, so I will have some dedicated writing time. Outside of that, I can write when my daughter naps. ;) I will be working on a new routine, and I am quite excited about it.

  4. Great words son — true for anyone who wants to create and inspire others and you do. I’m proud of you.

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