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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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 [http://alissawilkinson.com] teaches writing and humanities at The King’s College in New York City and co-edits Comment [http://cardus.ca/comment]. She is also working studying creative nonfiction in Seattle Pacific University’s low-residency MFA. She lives in Brooklyn.