I began to wonder: why is peace so hard to think about? Or conversely, why is violence so easy?
Margaret Paxson, an anthropologist, wrote a sort of prelude to her future book about peace, specifically peace within the French town of Le Cambin sur Lignon, whose residents saved Jews from Nazis at great risk and peril to their own lives.
Paxon attempts to give peace shape. She argues that war and violence have a quantifiable reality that peace often lacks. She wants to be able to study and analyze peace, in all its gritty details on the ground and face to face so that others can see what peace looks like in the flesh.
What if it can be seen not as timeless, but as dynamic; not located in the beginning or in the end but in the unfolding; something not of the ether but of lived soils and grounds? What if peace is, actually, something flawed and rough-grained?
Well then, social science can handle that. It can do dynamics. It can look towards the longue durée, settling happily into the study of actual, imperfect behaviour. That kind of research doesn’t require calls to the angels or to Elysium.
You just look into the faces of real people and the connections they make or don’t make with each other, and the stories they tell or don’t tell, and the ways they decide or don’t decide to treat a stranger as one of their own.
To give you an example of the thing-ness of evil, I point to apiece of art titled “HIM” by artist Maurizio Cattelan. It’s a statue of Hitler as a young boy, as he sits on his knees praying. The statue is usually shown so all you can see is the back of the statue down a long hallway. It’s currently on display in Warsaw. Whether or not it’s supposed to help you reflect on the nature of evil, remind you that evil can start out as a sweet little boy, or insult you, I guarantee it will elicit a reaction.
If evil can appear, at some point, so small and plain and innocent, then so can peace. Not just any peace, I’m thinking of a redemptive peace. Maybe it depends on your perspective, how you look at the world, or the statue, or those around you. We can choose to only see evil or we can choose to seek and find redemption.
That’s what I see or hope to see when I look at “HIM”.
This is an essay I’m currently writing and working on. Decided to share some of it today. The title makes reference to my oldest brother’s inability to talk. That’s not really discussed here. In French (I think) it’s: Mon frère, on parle dans le silence. Because I like to translate my titles into French.
My mother told me once, after my oldest brother’s death, that I might not quite feel the gravity of it all, of death, of losing a brother, of his disability. I understood then that this was probably true, but even now, so many years later, I still do not quite understand it all and I have given my life to understand something of death, of growing up without an able older brother—without two able older brothers—and I continue to come back to the themes of longing for a childhood where I could be the younger brother, where I could be teased by Aaron in words and outrun by KC in the fields.
We sang Amazing Grace at Aaron’s memorial service. When we buried the metal box with his ashes, surrounded by oaks and weeds, pillars of dust rose up from a rusted tractor in the field below. I could also see the high school and the baseball field in the distance. It was there, behind the dugouts, where I imagined the namer of this small town stood, when he pointed up to the sky at a bald eagle circling, it’s wings opened wide. This Native in my mind holds his hand in the direction of the bird, but does not name it, for it is too beautiful and too majestic. He therefore names the land in its shadow after it.
Yoncalla. This is where I grew up. Where I lived when Aaron died and where he is buried now underneath the oak trees on the hill, underneath the shadow of what we cannot name.
I remember Aaron standing in the bathroom, his diaper at his feet, and my mother leaned over, wiping him. The Cubs game played in the living room and hot dogs boiled on the stovetop. It was Saturday. If Aaron had lived with us, my mother wiping him and the stink of it down the hallway would be a common scene, but he only visited.
When Aaron turned three the doctors diagnosed him with tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC). His mental faculties diminished and he stopped talking. He used to say Daddy and Mommy, afterward he hardly looked them in the eye.
TSC is a rare multi-system genetic disease that causes non-malignant tumors to grow in the brain and on other vital organs such as the kidneys, heart, eyes, lungs, and skin. A combination of symptoms may include seizures, developmental delay, behavioral problems, skin abnormalities, lung and kidney disease.
I had to Google search TSC much like my mother did in 1994 when we first connected to the Internet in our house. She spent hours in front of the monitor, waiting through the slow loading process, and coming to the same conclusion as the doctors: Aaron would live a long life.
1979, the same year Aaron was born, Manuel Rodríguez Gómez, head of the Mayo Clinic’s Pediatric Neurology department, edited the only textbook on TSC for the next twenty years. And in a 1991 Mayo Clinic publication, “Causes of death in patients with tuberous sclerosis,” states, “Leading causes of death include…status epilepticus or bronchopneumonia in those with severe mental handicap.” My mother no doubt read that line, “those with severe mental handicap.” With autistic like conditions, severe seizures, and an inability to take care of himself, she understood severe mental handicap. She felt it in her back and bones. She raised five children in all. When Aaron was nine my father made the difficult decision of putting him in a group home. The effort to raise so many children with so many needs, my Father realized, would break my mother physically and emotionally. But moving Aaron out of the house broke her no matter what. In all those hours of studying TSC and the obvious, the inevitability of Aaron’s death so thoroughly disclosed itself from her. She called it an act of grace.
Two weeks before Aaron’s death he was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. I was almost 12. A few days before he was hospitalized we drove to Roseburg and picked him up from the group home and went out for ice cream. My mother fed Aaron vanilla ice cream from a dish, but the ice cream hurt Aaron’s teeth so Mom offered it to me. Aaron drooled and his drool grossed me out so I didn’t eat his leftover ice cream. That was the last time I saw him, afraid of his drool in an ice cream shop in Roseburg, 1997.
When Aaron was born my mother and father were juniors at the University of Idaho, she an art education major and he business. Their plan, before Aaron, was to teach at the same high school together. But the only art class she ever taught was when she home-schooled the four of us. Before Aaron passed away she painted with watercolors and sold many of her paintings or gave them away as gifts to friends and donations for auctions. She taught us about the primary colors and how to make green and orange and purple. Once, we mixed all the colors together thinking we’d concoct a super color, but it only made black and from black we could make nothing more.
I begin with the color black. I begin with all the stories poisoned on the palette. I don’t know where the colors come from, but when I tell the story they begin to form. At least I think I see them. To anyone else they could be monochrome pictures. To me they’re apparitions rising in the sky. Stories about my childhood are stories about who I am, but I cannot understand them. They rise too high and too far for me to understand their truths. I can only point at them and watch their shadows streak across the ground.
This is the story of my brother Aaron. Over there is the story of my brother KC. And there, much closer and lower, that’s my story. Sometimes they blend together, other times they’re separate. We live in a liminal space where we think we know something about the world when really something bigger is happening. Isn’t time so strange, how it let’s us be comfortable with the present and then we realize how different our present is, how distant our past, how short our future? It’s so hard to look away from my beginnings. In contemplating my story I gain the growing sense of something beyond the story. A majestic power floating in the sky, but I cannot point to it and I cannot name it. It eludes my grasp. Is this an act of grace?
I could tell you that writing fiction feels like making some sinuous watercourse. A river. A creak. A stream.
I could describe my ideas—my characters, even—as the traveling water. The outer banks, you see, could be my imagination. With time and movement, with the mysterious back and forth of my work, these banks would change—expand, and widen. Excitement, clarity, compassion, eloquence—those would be words of my widening. And I would write hoping that when (if) a reader came upon my finished ‘river’ someday, they would be widened, too.
Or I could compare starting a story to carving an elaborate design into a stone. This design would be made from a continuous pattern that bends somewhat wildly, but also repeats. So there would be order in it—an inherent sensibleness to its intricate, echoing motif as I chisel it into place, sentence by sentence.
I suppose, in this scenario, I would hope for my final reader to be both comforted and provoked by my creation’s strange symmetry. That its curvatures would mimic their own experiences, and yet also invite them to the unknown—the challenging realities of others.
But I can’t compare beginning a story to making water rush or slowly chiseling stone. In the six or so years I’ve been seriously attempting short fiction, starting out has felt much different.
Most of the time it just feels like…rambling. Like roaming around without my shoes.
Unless I accept this—live it out at the desk—writing fiction scares the… Bereshit Bara out of me. I have the abandoned paragraphs and orphaned pages to prove it—words that never really became real in the beginnings at all.
So to fight stasis, I have to embrace some seriously nonsensical seeming wandering. Some zag and some zig.
Often I start with an image—but not always. There is no always in this process, for me.
Sometimes I start with snatches of dialogue of fragments of setting. Like many writers I know, I have entire documents and notebook sections that don’t contain a single complete sentence—odd testimonies to my nomadic process.
I might begin by mimicking lines (often first lines) I love—sentences that are mysterious and simple in all the right places. My own creations are shoddy in comparison, of course. But, I am writing. And I am writing sentences, and I am starting something, here.
Forget that someday-reader, I tell myself—I am writing, now. I am meandering, but not—as the common definition of the word suggests—moving about from place to place without aim. My aim is to make, and making I am.
The only truly aimless days are the days I dismiss these raw pages. I deny their place in the process, too afraid to see them as the beginning of what could one day be called…literature.
But lately I have come up against this halting fear armed with etymology. I allow myself to think about a single word in whatever I have written—to pause on it, mull over it, and suss it out. Why is this word in my twisted little sapling of a story draft? And where did it come from, anyway?
To give you some idea of how it works, even if just in the process of writing a (this) non-fiction piece–consider the word: meander.
Meander: a turn or bend along the course of moving water.
Meander: an ornamental pattern of winding or intertwining lines used in art and architecture.
Meander: the title of aStanley Plumly poemthat I have read at least five times this month while struggling to get a story started. A poem that unpacks this word with spare eloquence and sensory imagery by speaking of:
endings as beginnings, the egg, the moon, the perfect snow, geometry and physics of completion, symbols of certainty, the formal beauty of arrival.
These are but a few of the meanings and histories to spill out from this one word. They remind me that I am not language’s Creator, but created to re-create.
When I write fiction, I might not be making a river, but I can be the bend in it. I can be a curved line in a design already completed, even if I cannot see the end from where I am. There is pleasure in scrabbling around, through the cadence of just-made prose or details of character.
There is early joy, even if its raw source makes me uneasy. I can’t test my writing unless I trust it as writing—at every stage.
Novelist Michael Ondaatje believes: “The first sentence of every novel should be: Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human. Meander if you want to get to town.”
He is speaking here of assurance offered by an author to his reader. But the assurance I seek as I write sounds nearly the same. In them I hear God’s urging—first to get going, and then, once the tracks are there, to go with them for as long as I can. To be a triumphant meanderer, praying as my stories moves.
And as I go about my making, I will try to remember the winding watercourses I have seen from airplane windows. How their twisted, even snake-like bodies had an order very faint, very earthly. They were not quite holy—not yet. But they were beautiful as they flowed, and flowed, and followed.
When I began this journey back in May, it started out as a selfish quest for an answer. I’d started writing my novel and kept running into the same roadblocks of fear: fear of failure, fear of wasting my time, fear of not being good enough, fear of being made fun of. So I went to some friends and some people I’ve never met and asked them the questions that resulted in this Series.
From you I learned that creativity takes courage.
I feel like Meister Eckhart is speaking to me when he asks, “Why is it that some people do not bear fruit? It is because they are busy clinging to their egotistical attachments and so afraid of letting go and letting be that they have no trust either in God or in themselves.”
This Creativity Series has shown me I need to trust, not only in myself and in the process, but also in God, that he his faithful and he will do it. Do what exactly? Move when I move, jump when I leap, walk when I take that first step, and be present when I write that first word.
I was very afraid to do this, but I went ahead and…
It is available for the Kindle, the iPhone and iPad, on your computer, or other devices like the Nook.
It is 99 cents and any profits will go to the charity I work for: worldschildren.org. It might be silly to charge a dollar for a book you can read for free, but you can at least feel really good about the purchase and know you’re making a difference in a poor child’s life. I haven’t told the charity I’m doing this. I want it to be a surprise. Hopefully a big surprise. If you feel so called I’d really appreciate it.
Adele Konyndyk’s post tomorrow will bring to a close the Bereshit Bara Creativity Series, but the Creativity Series will continue with Part 2 and I’ll have more information on that next week.
I begin. Fingers moving over the keyboard, because this is my time. I do not have a lot of time. I have to sit down with what is available. I do not have time to walk, and stew, smoke (I don’t) or drink, ponder or worry. I will ponder and worry between words, between phrases sometimes, after I write, always, but first I have to start.
The inspiration? Ideas, experiences, things I haven’t yet made sense of yet but know there is something there. I know there is something there because I haven’t made sense of it. Or because I have, but I’m starting to doubt it. “You live in the midst of mystery,” says Richard Rodriguez, “and you say you don’t know what to write?” Amy Tan says you start from a place of moral ambiguity. Sometimes it takes me a while to weed through the ambiguity of things to the moral ambiguity; that’s the good stuff. That’s where it has to end up.
It is about a mountain. It is about climbing the mountain. I have to describe this. I’m generalizing, not telling the story. It is about feet. I should describe the boots, the socks, the thin socks inside vapor barrier socks inside heavy wool socks inside neoprene lined plastic hiking boots. But I started with the mountain. This part will have to go, yield to the boots. There is time there for a quick worry, a quick ponder. The mountain must still be there. Where will it fit? Around the boots, even if it is so much bigger. It is not the focus. It is only the scene. Now the boots are the scene. The essay is about vulnerability. Vulnerability is the focus. Bigger than, smaller than the mountain, the boots. How do I write that?
The first word has to come from whatever is in my mind. It will not be the first word at the end. But it will set the scene, set the stage, start to move my mind, open up the passages through which course thoughts and ideas, like water, like blood…and occasionally grace. This is what I’m waiting for. Grace. It will only come from moving my fingers, moving my mind and letting my fingers follow, going back and correcting, letting them go forward again. There is something in this lubrication of thought that smoothes the way for grace, on occasion, just sometimes. If it comes, it will come silently– not a flash, not a bang—just a rush of thought like water, sometimes a word, always a feeling of abundance, of beauty. It might be just a glimpse, a mountain through a cloud, and it might linger, like a sunrise.
Elizabeth Gilbert recalls that the ancient Greeks and Romans believed creatives had a genius; they were not geniuses in their own right, but they had an external source of inspiration to be credited (or blamed) with their creations. She suggests the humanist move to consider a person a genius is at the root of creative angst. I like that. The real inspiration comes only sometimes, only if I sit down and start to work. It is not me, but it may come through me. Sometimes it does not. Then I close my eyes, and say: please. I have to also remember when it comes to close my eyes and say: thank you.
The mountain becomes boots, a tent. Then the words move on—the same piece– a woman I met in a hospital… Maunday Thursday Services. It is vulnerability, nakedness. It is boots. Foot washing. Exposure. Cold. Frozen water. Liquid water. Faith. Light.
I worry that what I write will not be good, and sometimes I don’t want to start. I make excuses for the day, and sometimes the next day. I worry that I wont get it right. I worry that I’m deluding myself, thinking I can do this, which can turn to fear, and even terror like…like…like a flash flood in a slot canyon (where did that come from?). It can slump to depression. It has done all of these things. The only way out is to sit down and keep writing, keep waiting.
The only way for grace to come is to sit down and write. It might not come today, tomorrow, or this month. My job is to sit down. To begin. To remember to say thank you, as well as please, no matter what happens. To question what I see and remember, to think of the scene, to think of the story, to think of what is important, and to try to write it as best I can. This is not sexy, or interesting to say, but it is everything. Maybe it is this that is grace itself.
Shannon Huffman Polson is a writer living with her family in Seattle and getting outdoors as much as she can, which is far too little. Her first book, North of Hope, a memoir including mountains, fear and grace, is due out Spring of 2013 from Zondervan. Visit her at aborderlife.com.
It’s funny how one word can have so many connotations and mean a thousand different things to different people. Like the word blogging, or writing, or creativity, or baseball.
When I think of baseball I automatically think about the feeling of a hitting a double in the gap, the surge of a near-perfect swing.
Others might think about that boring sport on TV or the pain of a bruise on their ribs.
The cool thing about the internet is that it opens up so many possibilities. It’s like the pitches are the size of watermelons and the outfielders look away to watch the butterflies float across the grass.
Then why does it feel like I’m always striking out?
Why do I think the Internet is something to conquer, something to serve my needs for affirmation and validation?
I’m running a race I can’t win. What I think about when I think about writing and blogging is failure.
I am thankful for this ability to write and create stuff and put it all out here. And I’m grateful for all the people I know and don’t know who read and comment and think and share. That all takes time and effort.
I just keep reminding myself about all I’m grateful for (like you) and I lose the desire to pursue the world (and the internet) like a foolish conquistador. That’s when writing and blogging come back into perspective for me. It’s not that it’s not about me (to use a Christianese cliché), but that it’s all about something so much bigger than me, so much more pressing, so much more worthwhile.
I thank God for that.
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Evil for the French novelist François Mauriac was necessary to tell stories of hope and love and redemption. Stories of childhood and innocence also required to be stories of evil and violence. But it is not the easy, cookie-cutter projection of evil prevalent among characters today (ie. bad guys in movies).
Evil is a mystery. How does the Christian storyteller understand this mystery? Mauriac wrestles with this question in his 1952 Nobel Prize in Literature speech:
For a Christian, evil remains the most anguishing of mysteries. The man who amidst the crimes of history perseveres in his faith will stumble over the permanent scandal: the apparent uselessness of the Redemption.
The well-reasoned explanations of the theologians regarding the presence of evil have never convinced me, reasonable as they may be, and precisely because they are reasonable. The answer that eludes us presupposes an order not of reason but of charity.
It is an answer that is fully found in the affirmation of St. John: God is Love.
Nothing is impossible to the living love, not even drawing everything to itself; and that, too, is written.
I sometimes wonder why I write or paint at all. This bewilderment grows not because the craft is long and hard—-although it is surely that—-but because once having written an essay or etched the image I am dissatisfied. Even when the words or paintings garner praise from people whose opinions I most value, I remain unconvinced. While the craftsman in me can always find grist to revise, the dissatisfaction with my art has deeper and less certain roots. C.S. Lewis once said, “What does not satisfy when we find it, was not the thing we were desiring.”
In recent years I have become a gardener of flowers. To the surprise of family and colleagues whose memory of my earlier years included disparagement if not ridicule of those who spent precious time tending roses, I now expend abundant energy creating a multi-colored perennial garden. To my surprise, since becoming a gardener my winters are filled with a visceral yearning to feel spring’s warm sum against my cheek and spy the first lime shoot pushing through the black soil. I endure Colorado’s blustery early spring days while working the gardens bare cold earth, despite near frost-bitten hands and a reliably sore back. I tend my flowers with the same reckless frenzy my grandchildren inflict upon the wrappings of their birthday presents.
I confess that some of this anticipation and subsequent dissatisfaction is inherent in all I do—like say when I add or subtract flowers or revise a manuscript or return to a canvas. It is art embedded in a false hope, a myth that some penultimate hoop can be negotiated, that I might actually obtain, as Curley in City Slickers suggests, “The One Thing.” But somehow, my longings seem, or at least I imagine them to be, larger than hoop jumping. Rather, with an embarrassing ardor that despite the winters slush and cold not only persists but grows, I am motivated by summer’s lushness and color. It is within the memory of last August’s late afternoon sun dappled across the delphinium’s purple blooms that births a deeper longing, a longing I know but cannot name, a longing pointing beyond my garden.
I view my writing and painting studio like a garden. I often come to the blank page with a fiery desire to transform the words of my mouth into a meditation of the heart. I become mesmerized by my words, oblivious to time or surroundings. Indeed, as the movie Miss Potter suggests, “There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story.” But my art contains both flowers and weeds.
When others read my manuscripts they do not see or smell or hear my memories. Often I get a response with some variation of, “Your writing needs more “sense” prose.” That is, the words describing the smells and sounds and tastes of my characters or scenes in addition to visual and aural clues would, so the wisdom implies, make these people and places more “vivid” or “real.” What I think my well-meaning advisors mean by suggesting such a cure is the addition of sensory details incites the reader’s memory, allows the recall of their previous experience with a particular taste or smell, a lived experience that now becomes fused to words creating a new, revised image making the story more real or at least, more memorable.
I still remember the startled Saint Matthew sitting among the dandies counting his money while Caravaggio’s Christ figure pointed that beckoning finger and dazzling expanse of painted light. Christ’s finger and light exploded off the painting calling both an astonished Matthew and me. It was a finger pointing to a world bigger than the canvas or the Contarelli Chapel or anything else I knew. But, that memory remains yoked to two other sensations: the smell in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi—a drafty dank odor found in the air of all Cathedrals over 300 years old—and the magical almond chocolate flavor of my first Roman Gelato, an ambrosia consumed just prior to standing before The Calling of St. Matthew. Years later I cannot enter an old church or taste chocolate gelato without the smell or taste conjuring Matthew’s look of astonishment or of my own.
I write in the early morning. I set fresh coffee on the desk, murmur Psalm 19 as my morning prayer, and with an old-fashioned ink pen and yellow pad copy two or three paragraphs from the work of a favorite writer’s prose. I did not always follow this plan. During the discipline of graduate school, I would arise early and after the first coffee sip plunge into writing. But then the words stopped. I desired to write but while the hoops remained, I no longer had hops.
A wise friend suggested I would know what to write when I allowed my memories to speak. But I don’t think that advice is quite right. After Joshua led the Israelites across the river Jordan and into the Promised Land, God instructed him to place twelve stones from the river as a monument. When asked why, the prophet said the stones would remind their children that this was the place where God allowed Israel to cross on dry ground. My memory does serve as a fertile source of desire and a rich experience repository, a resource needing careful stewardship. But memory like the stones is not the end and cannot satisfy. I meditate upon my memories, murmur the Psalmist’s poetry, and read the graceful words of writers upon whose shoulders I stand—my own stones—because when I remember rightly they point to why I write. I desire to write, to put that word on the page, because I long to tell of a Beauty I have not experienced but a beauty my experience has seen and tasted and heard.
David Clark is a physician, writer, and visual artist. After publishing forty professional articles as a University professor of medicine/surgery, he now maintains a printmaking studio, writes short stories and creative non-fiction, and teaches English part time at Fort Lewis College. In addition to recently earning a M.F.A. from Seattle Pacific University, Clark writes a regular column—The Occasional Reader, edits a medical journal, and blogs at Art, Words, and a Journey of Wonder. He and his wife Terry live in southwest Colorado. Contact: www.davidclarkart.com
If you want to receive more links as well as engage even more on the topic of writing and creativity then please join me at the Facebook page I set up: Creativity Series. Please post links to your own projects and works of creativity. There’s some great articles already posted.
Wednesday will feature a Creativity series post from David Clark, a physician, writer, and visual artist. After publishing forty professional articles as a University professor of medicine/surgery, he now maintains a printmaking studio, writes short stories and creative non-fiction, and teaches English part time at Fort Lewis College. In addition to recently earning a M.F.A. from Seattle Pacific University, Clark writes a regular column—The Occasional Reader, edits a medical journal, and blogs at Art, Words, and a Journey of Wonder. He and his wife Terry live in southwest Colorado. Contact: www.davidclarkart.com
I want to thank everyone who’s sent me a post wrestling with how one begins and finds the inspiration and motivation to create. I have one more post you should go check out.
“Instead of feeling drained and exhausted, I was exhilarated, charged for more and ready to undertake anything. Shortly thereafter though the bottom fell out and the doubts took over. Doubting that any of it was worth the digital paper where it was written, doubting that anyone would ever want to read it, and doubting that my sanity could weave a tale that actually made sense. Was I after all just a ‘pie in the sky’ dreamer? Was I chemically unbalanced, destined to end up in a psych ward somewhere talking to my dragons?”
Listen to the podcast. Subscribe to the podcast at iTunes.
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.