Creativity Series: Alissa Wilkinson “Gifts”

The Bereshit Bara Creativity Series asks 13 Creatives to wrestle with how they make the first move, write the first word, fling the first brush stroke, peel back the first layer of clay? What inspires them, what moves them, what drives them? I’d also like to hear from YOU. Send me your thoughts or a link to your post wrestling with these questions at

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People who write about writing often say that their inspiration comes as a gift—as if it is from a wholly other being. In a TED Talk, Liz Gilbert talks about genius as if it is an airy thing that alights on one’s head: our job is simply to show up and wait willingly. Others have spoken of the muse, the spirit of creativity, like a fairy, maybe even a ghost. Here is Mary Oliver in A Poetry Handbook:

Say you promise to be at your desk in the evenings from seven to nine. It waits, It watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself—soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes and are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly or it will not appear at all.

Why should it? It can wait. It can stay silent a lifetime.

So, that’s challenging, but kind of dismal, right?

Some even speak of creativity as a gift from the Holy Spirit—a sort of latter-day dove that descends and gives us the strength to summon up the courage to start. But to me, all of these descriptions always ring hollow because I am not very good at believing in things I cannot see. I need the verifiable and tangible. That I’d encounter this disembodied sprite who descends invisibly and suddenly I’d start typing like mad, alive with ideas—it seemed to work well enough for many others, but not for me.

Only recently have I begun to see that my courage to create comes from the world of the tangible. That is: the gift comes to me in the (real, earthly) form of other people. And specifically, a bunch of kids who are eighteen or twenty-one or thereabouts.

In February, I was sitting in my office, staring at my computer screen in helpless panic—I had an MFA deadline, I needed to write, pronto—and feeling as if maybe I’d better just quit and go grow tomatoes or something, when there was a knock on my door, and a student peeked in. “Can I come in?” he asked.

Just the excuse I needed.

He sat down and, after a question about classwork, began to ask about things other than class: books, writing projects, a movie he’d seen and pondered. We talked for twenty minutes, and he went on his way. But another knock came soon, and all afternoon they kept coming, to talk about movies and books and class.

To the naked eye, I was procrastinating, or at least suspiciously eager in welcoming the interruptions. But when they all left campus for the evening and I finally settled back in front of my laptop in the quiet to work for a few hours, I found the words now came easily.

It was as if the students left my desk cluttered with tiny packages full of sparks and courage, wrapped and be-ribboned, for me to pull open. Here, in this pastel box, was a thought about imagination worth expanding, prompted by talking to a senior about her thesis project. There in the deep blue paper is a story about a student who now has the confidence to speak up in class. Oh, and over here is the anecdote (wrapped in the funnies) that made me remember a hilarious moment with my father that’s worth re-telling and re-exploring.

So I suppose you could say the inspiration still alights on me from above; I think of these students as gifts (most of the time) and they certainly come unbidden, outside of office hours. But unlike Gilbert’s “genius,” or Mary Oliver’s vaguely frightening “it,” unlike a muse or a sprite—these inspirers have skin and messy hair and backpacks and laughter, and they always leave me with the courage to start, and then, to keep going.

Alissa Wilkinson [] teaches writing and humanities at The King’s College in New York City and co-edits Comment []. She is also working studying creative nonfiction in Seattle Pacific University’s low-residency MFA. She lives in Brooklyn.

9 thoughts on “Creativity Series: Alissa Wilkinson “Gifts”

  1. Alissa, thank you! This post reminds me: I worked so hard to find solitude, as a parent, and I DO need solitude to write. But I also hunger for people, for fun, for conversational writing “sparks” as you name them.

    I’m going to read this again five times.

  2. when i was in college, i talked about my muse all the time. i believed my creative output came from some other source (it was really God), and the muse was convenient and artistic way of presenting that. i also really believed that i only had a *little* creative power inside me, and God had to do the rest. as i’ve grown and my writing’s grown, i’m seeing that it’s actually the other way around. my own head is simply teeming with ideas that long to be put in a structured order, and then spit out onto a page in the same order. God just gives me a little push, and then i can create as my Creator created. speaking of “gifts,” the biggest gift God gave me was my *ability* to create, like teaching a man to fish instead of just giving him a fish.

    thanks, Alissa, and thanks, Ross.

  3. Dear Ross,

    As you know I am only newbie to the blogosphere and to your blog, but I come to enjoy your posts and this one is no different. I like Alissa’s descriptions of her students and think you fortunate indeed to have them in her life. Throughout my life I ‘wrestled’ with many agonizing questions, such as; ‘why write’, ‘who for’ and ‘what for’. My ‘station in life’ certainly did not lend itself to such ‘fluffy’ and ‘far fetched’ ideas as to be a writer, a ‘floater’ with no destination/goal in mind. The ever present mantra was to employ one’s faculties to some industries and productive endeavours. So I did. For years. And I was never the whole person, truly alive person. Finally I started to dismantle l those barriers when I started my blog. And not only that I wrote about it, but I actually published it … I clicked the ‘publish’ button and thus made it available for whoever stumbles upon it. My most secret fears exposed. To my surprise some people actually read it. People I never met and who never met me. What’s more they often liked it. And each and every time that happened I felt more alive, more whole than in all those years I was trying desperatly to be ‘productive’ and ‘useful’ member of society.

    For me writing, (or what-ever other form of expression one employs), is road to self. To write is to say; ‘I am alive’, ‘I have been here, have seen, loved, lost, hated …’ And to this end it is a form of compulsion. Where does it come from? I believe that all forms of art come from the most basic, but also most eloquent human need; need to be acknowledged, to be recognized for one self. To be recognized is to belong somewhere, and ultimately to be loved.

    Thank you and I apologize if this comment is too long.


  4. I love this, because people always talk about inspiration like it isn’t a choice. Ive always viewed writing as work, and frankly, I love to do it BECAUSE I struggle with it. I’ve only every found inspiration through thinking critically of the world around me, and I think that’s exactly what you’re describing. Taking something from an experience, no matter how minor, and using that as your inspiration.

  5. Wonderful, the inspiration in the tangible, even if I get mine from a two-and-a-half year old. A helpful reminder of the beauty in our every day and our relationships, especially when the muse doesn’t show.

  6. “…these inspirers have skin and messy hair and backpacks and laughter, and they always leave me with the courage to start, and then, to keep going.”

    I need to remind myself more than I actually do that writing (especially cnf, I think) comes from a community and goes back to a community. Thanks for the needed reminder.

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