Creativity Series: “Altars” by Diana Huey

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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The first altar described in the Bible comes after mass destruction. When the floodwaters subside, Noah gets off his homemade cruise ship with his family, lets the animals out, and builds an altar. Then he sacrifices some of the animals on the altar. I wonder if it’s sorrow or relief driving him to create this monument, or something else entirely.

A few days ago, I was driving west over the St. Johns Bridge in Portland on my way to work. Since I am a server at a restaurant downtown, I leave for my shift when everyone else is leaving their shifts. The sun was overhead, the sky dotted with unmenacing clouds, and though I didn’t know I was heading toward adventure, I felt all the excitement of a good story purely because of the view before my eyes.

The St. Johns Bridge is my favorite bridge in this town. It’s painted green the color of the Statue of Liberty, as though it were not painted at all, but instead wearing a matted patina. Its two arches pierce the sky with spires—two apiece—making the whole thing reminiscent of a castle. The Castle Bridge. That’s what we used to call it as kids.

When you go west over the Castle Bridge, you face the West Hills. This time of year they are mottled in two distinct shades of green—dark for the older growth on the evergreens, and bright for the new sprouts and deciduous leaves. The West Hills harbor apartments, houses, and the Pittock Mansion, but also and more importantly, Forest Park, the largest city park in the country. Miles and miles of lush running trails. I like a good run as much as a good novel.

When I drive under a castle bridge and face a forest, I feel a certain thrum inside me. I remember good runs and good fairy tales I’ve read about forests and adventures like A.S. Byatt’s “The Thing in the Forest”, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Colin Meloy’s new YA novel, Wildwood, and Christopher McDougall’s well-wrought Born to Run (a kind of non-fiction fairy tale for crazies like me). Sometimes when I am running underneath that mottled canopy of trees, I pretend I am inside one of these stories.

Getting scheduled for a shift on the patio in Portland means being uncertain whether you will work at all, and uncertain whether, if you do work, the weather will be nice enough for people to actually want to sit outside, let alone tip you. But once you get started, most shifts are just like the others: nothing to write home about.

We had fourteen tables set up on the patio that evening, seven were mine, and of those seven, five were seated at just before eight when the clouds changed from unmenacing to menacing.Three tables were nearly finished. Another asked to move inside to the bar, and the two men at the last table, as I took their drink orders asked if it was going to rain. “I don’t know,” I said evasively. I should have said, “Remember Noah? He pulled in the plank on the ark when the sky looked like that.”

I moved the one table inside with the first roll of thunder, and was printing checks for the other three as the rain began streaking the windows. The Is-it-going-to-rain men had ordered Tableside Guacamole which involves a server or expo and a tray filled with ramekins, a heavy black mortar and pestle, two avocados, and half a lime. It takes a few minutes to makeguacamole at a table, and I always feel like Rachael Ray in front of a studio audience when I do it. Is-it-going-to-rain was sitting under a giant striped canvas umbrella, but my guac-making coworker was not. He got soaked by the time he set the chips and green dip on their table.

As I headed back outside, the downpour escalated to “torrential”by Portland standards—as heavy as I’ve seen in this town—a steady rush of gray, sloshing in the streets and cascading out of full gutters. I covered my head with my little brown tray and made a run for my tables. I cashed them out and checked in with the two guys under the umbrella. “We’ll stay here,” they said. “We’ve got our food.” Wet through, I covered my head with the tray again and ran back inside through the front door.

When I came around through the restaurant, four or five of the staff were clustered at the top of the steps by the side door. The north wall of the restaurant is on a slope, and the rain, having filled the storm drains, was rushing and rolling over the sidewalks and into the lower entry of the restaurant. The dining room staff was having a good laugh at those of us working outside. We got over an inch of rain in that hour. It was all kind of thrilling, running from table to table, huddling under a canvas umbrella with strangers and wet credit card slips.

The menus were ruined, our wooden host stand was swollen, and the linen wrapped silverware in the bucket had to be washed and rewrapped. But I didn’t mind. It was new and raw and exhilarating—an aberration from all other shifts I’ve worked—a story to text to my brother, to call and tell my mom.

Noah had it worse. He had to deal with humiliation from the neighbors before the rains arrived, and a cruise ship full of turd-producing animals to feed during and afterward. Forty days of rain and six months of cabin fever until he could land his vessel and fall to his knees on dry ground. Was he more thankful to be off the boat or to have survived on it?

I wonder if his soul marveled within him as he dug his hands into the soil, ran his fingers the length of an olive leaf, or tested the weight of a rock in his hand. Throwing one rock as far as he could, he launched another and another as he realized somewhere down in the receding waters were bodies of men he’d known and animals he’d hunted. Noah could feel the eyes of his living wife, his sons, his sons’ wives, his grandchildren as he launched each stone, and finally kneeling down for another, he instead set it alongside a boulder. He gathered stones, one for each dead man he knew, and finally he’d built an altar.

There are lots of reasons why I write stories and make paintings and play the piano, and almost all of them are because some impulse of response forces me into it. Creation becomes this thing that I must do in order to maintain sanity—equal and opposite reactions—the world comes into my senses, and I have to let something out in order to make room for it. Maybe Noah made the altar out of gratitude for his survival, or maybe it was a sculpture marking his sorrow. I don’t know. Maybe he didn’t throw rocks when he got off the ark. Maybe he went for a run.

I write and I run for the same reasons: 1. I like doing both things. 2. If I don’t do them, I get depressed or anxious or listless and sometimes I forget why. I wonder if I have to earn my right to have this body or this brain by using them. It seems backward to say I do things because not doing them is a worse alternative. Often the first few miles or sentences are excruciating, but once I get warmed up, it feels like I was made for them. It feels like I am more alive than I’ve ever been.

I tell stories about life when it deviates from the norm, and I have to share them with someone else. And sometimes I gather words together because I’ve read good stories that are not quite satisfying because they are someone else’s, so I need to relive them by writing my own. I do know that some of my best writing and art have come out of the most painful periods of my life when I’ve been either flooded by relational disasters or poverty or circumstances out of my control. And in those moments I write or paint little altars, giving thanks when I am done that pain is a thorough teacher.

Diana Huey studied Printmaking at Whitworth University where she wrestled with the desire to litter her art with text. When she began writing fiction, she wrestled with how to form visual art with words. As she completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University, the tension between the two media became a driving force toward the act of creation–toward fleshing out the ether between her art and life and faith.

Creativity Series: Derek Smith “19 Beginnings for a Blog About Beginnings”

• Download episodes or Subscribe to the Podcast on Itunes by clicking here.

• If you missed Elizabeth Myhr’s meditation titled, “Hello” go here to catch up. My wife pulled the name out of the hat and the winner of Elizabeth Myhr’s book the vanishings & other poems is: Evan Kingston. Congratulations! Send me your mailing address at rossgale4 at gmail dot com.

From Ross: Teachers were once described to me as performers, putting on a show to help students learn. If this is true then Derek Smith is an Oscar winning performer. He creates in the classroom with as much skill and wit and humor as he does with words. His tempo, flow, and rhythm always surprise and delight my expectations. He pushes the boundary of story with his images and characters. No matter how far out he takes us, he always brings us back to humanity and to the little things; objects that shape the human experience, give it a pulse, and also cause that pulse to die. His own stops and starts of words act as a defibrillator for the readers’ heart. Taking our breath away. Then returning it in grace.

Listen here:

1. Peanut butter cup wrappers, empty bottle of wine, greasy fingers, greasy mouth.

2. My friend Ross asked me questions about creative people getting started. Stuck on the freeway on my way home from work one afternoon, I heard Ross’ questions in my head. Against all sense I typed some ideas into my cell phone while sitting in traffic. Stop and go.

3. When I was in college my friends and I learned hip-hop choreography from a girl in high school who taught dance out of her parents’ garage. After a certain number of practices there was a show, and I performed a Lil’ Kim routine. The show was in a Greyhound bus station waiting area, so my routine was in front of the arriving and departing travelers, other community dance types like my instructor, clusters of tween students, and a crowd of parents with cameras.

4. I passed through the checkout line with a bag of yogurt-covered almonds stuffed in the front pouch of my younger brother’s Calvary Chapel Bible College hooded sweatshirt. Bulk items were for sampling, I reasoned, and this was a big-box store. I could take large samples and it would be okay. No one would notice or get hurt.

5. An artist follows a line where it leads. The words were scrawled over a black and white picture of a chubby man by a campfire following his nose into the air. His body hovered several inches above the log on which he had been sitting.

6. G.K. Chesterton: “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.”

7. When I put pen/cil to paper, I hear the voice of a teacher telling me to read my writing out loud.

8. I’m a teacher. I do the calling. No one needs to read anything out loud.

9. Ego marbles rattle my skeleton.

10. I work day after day for a glimpse of revelation. Sometimes the work is akin to looking past the boundaries of my body and through a window on an adjacent wall to a world I know little about.

11. I dance in a nightclub. Mirrors and decadence and depravity all around!

12. I am a quasi-historical comic book hero-legend. My pecs are so large they have a line down the middle where my silver chain gathers.

13. For emergencies: Anne Lamott spoons me on my bed and pets my hair while I nibble the upper left-hand corner of a Toni Morrison book.

14. Usually: a dead body washes up.

15. Today: I’m angry about middle school.

16. Always: my partner says she won’t read a thing till it’s finished.

17. Sometimes I move a folding chair from the patio outside my apartment to the bathtub, draw an inch of water, turn on the fan and lock the door, and sit on the chair with my laptop balanced on my knees. I love to swish my feet in the shallow pool.

18. Sometimes I am so afraid of the First Word I gather a thousand little words and call the thousand little ones a “collection.”

19. There’s nothing special about words. Writing is hand-work, like tying a knot in a Safeway bag used for garbage.

Derek Smith teaches language arts at Renton High School in Renton, Washington, and earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from SPU in 2011. He edits and contributes to Magical Teaching and is working on a memoir called Mr. Smith Is Magic — And Other Fantasies of a First-Year Teacher.

Finding the Courage to Create: Inspiration from our Writing Community

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“Creativity is a central source of meaning in our lives. Most of the things that are interesting, important, and human are the result of creativity.” —Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Tomorrow our 2nd Creative, Derek Smith, will share with us his meditation titled, “19 Beginnings for a Blog About Beginnings.” You still have time to comment on Elizabeth Myhr’s post “Hello” and if you leave a comment you enter yourself into a chance to win her book the vanishings & other poems. I’ll announce the winner of the book tomorrow.

As a part of the Bereshit Bara Creativity Series I’ll be sharing posts and links from our writing community. Creatives are asking themselves difficult questions about what it means to be writers, painters, musicians, artists, photographers, etc. If you’d like to join the conversation go here to read about our series and email me a link to your post (rossgale4 at gmail dot com) where you wrestle with these questions about finding the courage to create. These questions are leading us to even deeper insight and further questions about the act of creation and how we’re creating the culture around us.

Please visit these courageous Creatives to read more of their hearts and minds.

• K.D. Byers “The Courage to Create

My secret is that I write because I am selfish. I can’t can’t help myself; I have to create. When my cross country season was over it dislocated me. My muscles jerked and twitched. I looked toward windows with the thought of when I could get a run in. Writing is like that, but bigger. I may be doing things, but I’d rather be writing. It is a guttural thing.

In Hebrew, the word for God’s creative energy is bara, but for human endeavors the verb asah, to make, is used. Only God can bara. Our creativity is always in the image of the Creator, whether we acknowledge it or not. I believe all of us are compelled to make, whether it be art or families or technology, so because we too were created. The act has sunk down into our marrow and seeps out, like vestiges from God’s bara. We can’t not create. It is in us.

• Lloyd’s of Rochester “Accepting the Creative Challenge

Am I a truly a Creative? I wonder… I write because I am a writer, a “teacher,” a sharer of insights, ideas and information – I am a Wordsmith. It takes no courage for me to write in the same way it takes no courage for a bird to fly – it is the outpouring of who I am, with no tinge of arrogance or indifference. So if I do not wrestle in this way, do I even qualify?

Creativity Series: “Hello” by Elizabeth Myhr

• Download episodes or Subscribe to the Podcast on Itunes by clicking here.

From Ross: The Brazilian philosopher, Rubem Alves, retells a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story about a dead body washing ashore a small and lifeless fishing village. As the women prepare the body for burial, their imaginations alight with new stories, speculating who the dead man might be, what his voice sounded like, where he came from, who his family was, who he loved, who loved him. The men watching became jealous and made up their own stories. The village became alive with these imaginations, full of new thoughts and stories. The dead man resurrected their conversations and brought with him new joy. His death brought the village life.

The poet, Elizabeth Myhr understands the intrinsic power of words and elucidates this new life writers bloom into the world with her meditation titled “Hello”.

Listen here:

This writer does not jump into creativity. Creativity bumps into her on its way through the world.

I walk around, go to work, take care of my family, drive up a long, shaded city street and for just one moment the words drift into the brain from right to left. The brain sees them out of the corner of its internal eye, a phrase, incomplete, but unmistakably new. This is the beginning.

One who is not a writer does not pay attention, or sees and lets go of the gift. The gift’s living nature is to be ever moving. It has the quality of light. It is not a product of the human brain.

The writer has a tool called language by which she pins this light down on paper. There it listlessly flaps its beautiful wings, its shine vanishing. Then it dies.

The writer pins it to a board we call a document. Then the writer’s work starts. Using this tool and this board, the writer creates the world around this piece of captured light, this butterfly. When she’s finished with the construction, she pulls out the pin. The resurrected creature lifts its antennae, the wings fold up, and with a quick, tiny jump, it flies away.

Look, there is a reader with a butterfly net.

For the writer, there is only one word, the word of recognition: “hello.”

Elizabeth Myhr is a poet, editor and product development manager. Her debut book of poetry the vanishings & other poems, was published by Calypso Editions in October of 2011. She holds an MFA in poetry from Seattle Pacific University and lives in Seattle with her family.

Bereshit Bara Creativity Blog Series: Introduction

Download episodes or Subscribe to the Podcast on Itunes by clicking here. The podcast box will be located at the bottom of each post. Feel free to put on some headphones and meditate on our Creatives’s words. I’ve added a little ambience to them as well.

Listen here:

When I asked the 13 Creatives to wrestle with how they found the courage to create many of them responded either in their meditations or in our conversations that good art often comes out of suffering and hardships, obstacles and challenges.

I expected to receive thoughts about creativity which helped me understand how the Creatives began their work, how they fought against writer’s block or discouragement.

But in reading these meditations my whole idea of creativity has been turned upside down. I feel as if I’m falling and I don’t know when or if I’ll ever land. It’s a scary place to be when you don’t know where you stand and you’re surrounded by darkness and mystery.

Through the 13 Creatives and our blogging community wrestling with these questions about creating, I’ve been changed.

The depths of everyone’s work will challenge you.

So I ask that you approach this series with an open heart and mind, prepared to wrestle with these questions as well as the concepts and metaphors.

I believe, like me, you’ll be changed in the process.

Tomorrow’s meditation comes from Elizabeth Myhr. She is a poet, editor and product development manager. Her debut book of poetry the vanishings & other poems, was published by Calypso Editions in October of 2011. She holds an MFA in poetry from Seattle Pacific University and lives in Seattle with her family.

When you comment on Elizabeth Myhr’s post you will be entered to win a copy of her book the vanishings & other poemsI’ll pull a name out of a hat on Wednesday.

Wednesday’s meditation will feature Derek Smith. He teaches language arts at Renton High School in Renton, Washington, and earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from SPU in 2011. He edits and contributes to Magical Teaching and is working on a memoir called Mr. Smith Is Magic — And Other Fantasies of a First-Year Teacher.