Pondering Creative Minds

pen and ink

At a New Year’s Eve get-together, some creative friends were enjoying the early evening hanging-around-the-kitchen-with-wine hour. Our host shared some stories about her and my former workplace, and before you click away, let me assure you it was creative gossip about two famous, influential writers.  They had both revealed to my friend something about how their creative minds worked in the daily world, and since I’m pondering that, no identities. But go ahead and guess, O fiction fans.

The organization we worked for provided short courses for adults in everything from languages to cooking to rollerblading, and it also hosted writers for appearances and workshop weekends. My friend’s job description put much of the logistics of these events on her shoulders. Let’s call the two visiting artists Creative Mind 1 and Creative Mind 2.

Full disclosure for blog justice: CM1 broke their contract without warning halfway through the weekend, and I am aware of later events in our fair city where CM1 made large, gratuitous difficulties for those who invited them. CM1 seems to have been nestled into a rarefied life by academia, where they operate undisturbed on strict routines that others of us might find monastic or stifling. The daily life seems designed to serve the Art. As the saying goes, you do you; I’m sure many artists work this way for successful results, and CM1 sure has those. (I only judge CM1 for how miserable they made my friend that weekend, as if their needs were the only ones of value. I settle for using the silly nickname we have called CM1 since then.)

CM1 told my friend that, flight delayed, they stood a long time in a long airport line. So they pulled out writing supplies and began notes for a new work. In the full experience of CM1 that weekend, my friend found this choice insular, as if they wrapped a layer of writing around themselves like plastic wrap in that unfortunate situation. That limbo moment was a chance to disengage from the world. That is how some artists get it done.

Again, disclosure: CM2 was friendly and obliging, and that counts for a lot when you’re coordinating a big event and are surrounded by responsibilities and drooling groupies.

CM2 was waiting to speak to an audience where our organization was then housed, a Gilded Age mansion in Boston, donated in the early 20th for that purpose. (I mean, it had a ballroom.) CM2 was waiting in a small, beautifully paneled room that had been the Gentleman’s study. They looked around and eagerly called my friend’s attention to the old wires bordering the glass inside the window frames. Recognizing it as a Gilded Age burglar alarm, CM2 was excited and exclaimed that it must be one of the earliest alarm systems, and how utterly cool. They were fascinated, and in this limbo moment, wholly engaged with a new thing to offer their attention. That’s how some artists get it done.

I would prefer a creative mind like CM2’s. I can be easily, even too, curious in any given moment and easily, even too, enthusiastic about new things to explore. I like CM2’s relationship with the world, although it can present challenges. Overload and scattering of attention does not always serve the work you want to do.

I’m also aware that I was doing exactly what CM1 did at the airport when I was drafting this piece, in the middle of an unpleasant, stressful period of waiting limbo of my own. Was I upholding my practice or retreating into it? When is being driven either inward or outward healthy and when not? What is the balance? How does objective success in one’s art, and one’s behavior to others, affect how we judge creative habits and what it means to have a Creative Mind?

There’s no conclusion here. I still find CM2’s mode richer, more appealing, and more natural to me. But I’m asking myself many questions about different forms of discipline, practice, routine, openness to the world as it comes, balance, and how best to support my well-being and creativity. Conversation welcome!

 

Well

Well

Well, here’s a tip from this Creative person: Remember, the weeks in February where one job is going to require a lot of extra hours may not be when 60+ college papers should be due. If you remember, you won’t be exhausted and behind through most of March, and then just exhausted for the rest, and you won’t spend 1.5 months in Lucifer’s Living room.

But if you don’t remember, pat yourself on the head in a soothing manner, and try to go with the flow until you can get to shore. Then say, like any good geek-hero, “I think we all learned something today.”

I learned, as it happens, what drastically needs to change about my life. If you grind your nose against the wall you hit some time back, you learn that it will bleed. If you teach community college 11 months a year, with 60+ students most of the time, and have other jobs, perhaps you can make an educated (ha?) guess what I learned.

I’ve posted before about how various Artists manage(d) their time. And Mason Currey has a second book coming out on the topic. Huzzah! I thought I remembered something in an essay by novelist Jeannette Winterson in her book Art Objects. O, Yup, there it was:

“…the question ‘How shall I live?’ is fierce,” she declares. And the answer in my own head, “Not the way I have been,” is feeling pretty fierce, too, right now. She continues, “If my partner needed to live on the coast for her health’s sake, no-one would be surprised that I should go. Should there be any surprise that I am returning to a quieter existence for the sake of my work?…There are people who tell me that I am cut off but to what are they connected?…I do not write every day, I read every day, think every day, work in the garden every day, and recognize in nature the same slow complicity…A writer lives in a constant state of readiness.”

She also, of course, works hard at what she does, and has a whole flock of gaspingly good novels to show for it. I suspect she spends a lot of most days not worrying much about money, a state she has earned.  Because she once did her share of the job-hopping years. And because great novels.

I  understand she likes the way her life feels, and I don’t. I lack well-being, as well as the fireplace she lights every day, and her solitude, and her money. I’ve always supported Creative People doing the best they can, making  life choices that suit them, or dealing with the ones “thrust upon ‘em”, without apology. I still do, but I’m getting  more interested in how my situation doesn’t work for me. I work…for it. And I’ve done all my work well, with stamina and discipline, since my last long-ago writing, and it’s not tolerable anymore not to be Well.

I’m one week into having made some serious small changes and some steps towards bigger changes. Unfortunate habits of work, living, and mind are being uprooted, although they long looked like the ground I stood on. I’m becoming someone I don’t like in some of my work life, and I may stop doing something I thought I would always do. Giving up things I care about and am good at for things I care about more and may be better at? Actually, scary. But right action.

Luckily I ran into a book by artist, designer, and teacher James Victore called Feck Perfuction. How could you not pick that up? Creative People should read it, especially those of us who need, Really Need, to be lifted up and shaken up. Here’s the page I’m on:

“If you want more in your life, you may have to accept less…Less distraction, less servitude to work, less debt, less greed, and less craving. It means surrendering our attachment.

Your happiness shouldn’t teeter on a bank ledger or come from any source other than acceptance of who you are.

Never settle and never give in but accept less.”

If you don’t find that terrifying, you’re either admirably together Creatively, or more like me and also not reading carefully. The leaves of Victore’s book cover some deep, dark pit traps. There is hidden danger to the status quo in almost every phrase. But after one week of small changes, here I am again. And this time it feels as if Writing When I Can isn’t an option anymore. You may have never been here because you figured it out for yourself way back, or you may be right here, too. There are worse places.

 

 

 

Start to Finish

misers

I’d like to post today about two things that happen this time of year. One is what I will call The Rankin Bass Conversations, or People on social media and elsewhere enthusiastically discussing mutant reindeer, earnest v. snotty elves, and Gigantic yo-yos and such. (For the Record: Abominable Snowman, thumbs down. Winter Warlock, thumbs up. Winter is The Man.)

The holiday season abounds with Creativity. Herbie’s cosmetic dentistry, Schroeder rocking the house via Vince Guaraldi, a corncob pipe and a button nose. Boston looks beautiful, and did you know every snowflake is unique. Especially Me. And the weather, remember, is Created by the two bitchy sons of Mother Nature, Cold Miser and Heat Miser, who resemble a blue 1960s TV actor and an orange troll doll. But those songs do Rule. You know they do.

The second thing that happens is the end of another semester barreling down on students and professors, itself like a force of nature. And this situation sometimes requires using Creativity to be silly and have some fun, as you float somewhere between This Pile of Papers and That Pile of Papers. And the Island of Misfit Papers…no, ok, sorry.

So I’m borrowing the bratty brothers to create two more opposite, difficult Siblings, called Beginning of Semester and End of Semester, or BEG and END for short. Imagine something jazzy playing.

BEG: Should I accessorize my Look for class today with layered necklaces or a scarf?

END: Clean is the New Black. (Thanks, Leah W of UNH, for this.)

 

BEG: Now that I’ve Prepped for class tomorrow, let me just get the dishes done and everything tidied up.

END: There’s one mug left for Coffee in the morning. OK, yay.

 

BEG: Done grading for the day? Prop up the pillows and read!

END: Done grading for the day? Punch down the pillows and drool.

 

BEG: Student approaches desk. Put on the expression of a goodhearted professor character who will brilliantly help the Oxford police pair solve a complex mystery on the British detective show.

END: Student approaches desk. Put on the expression of any character trying to survive in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

 

BEG: Well, good morning! How nice to see you again by the staff lounge coffee urns! How are you? Yes! I know! You also have a great day!

END: You’re blocking the spigot. Move aside. Move. Aside.

 

BEG: A free weekend day with no grading? Make plans. Take a nice little walk. Read a new book.

END: Sudden shocking abundance of free time after submitting course grades? Curl up to read YA fiction you have long since memorized. Decide Harriet the Spy should be APPRECIATED as a Writer rather than MISUNDERSTOOD by a thick-headed world. Sniffle a little. Take multiple obsessive walks. Buy used books you’re too weary to read. Have anxiety. Sniffle a little more. Consume only popcorn and white wine. Stare at things.

 

I BEG your pardon for this. The END.

Subversive Writing and Rambling

Subversive documents

We historic site colleagues were picking words to describe our presentation styles with the public. We like words: They’re artists and grad students who love communicating about history, and I do, too, and I’m, you know, CPT Me.

I suggested I’m “Intellectual but Funny.” They nodded agreeably, and one said, “The word we chose for you was Subversive.” Really??? Explanation: Because I had dismantled and rearranged our Revolutionary Personages talk to add in colonial poet Sarah Wentworth Morton, and to connect the subjects of the talk in my own chain of meaning.

My colleagues are young and in Master’s programs, blissfully unaware that in the Academia where I used to dwell, that’s not Subversive. That’s Required. That is called “intervening in the conversation,” and You’d Better have a new twist on things if you want to live in EnglishPhDland. Theoryguay. LitReviewistan. Jonestown.

OK, OK, a little dark humor isn’t going to leave a stain. I am proud of some of my work, deeply impressed by some scholars I know and read, and full of stuff to say about the 18th century. But I gloriously failed to be an academic many times while acting like I was trying to become one. That’s OK, though. Let’s all live our best lives.

Of course, there’s plenty of evidence that Scholarly and Creative can harmonize. But often they don’t, and I still don’t quite get it. For example, the author of an important book in my field said to me over cocktails that, although nearing retirement, she was discovering a whole new way to approach theater history. She was now attending actual rehearsals at her university for the first time in her career. Yeah. From her tone, she felt subversive. I felt a little sick. I can laugh about it now.

My Revolutionary talk at work is a good, coherent little talk, a star shape nicely squeezed out of the Play Doh Fun Factory of my Intellect. But it was prompted by real, personal interest and Creative Sisterhood with Mrs. Sarah, and those things aren’t too academic. Do I get to call the talk Creativity? I don’t know, yet oddly, I care. I hope someday to have more Intellectual/Creative harmony.

Am I subversive? I don’t write in a bare garret, rejecting everything but Art; I have an AC. I read mysteries and watch Antiques Roadshow. I like vanilla ice cream a great deal.

The writer and queer/feminist activist Michelle Tea described “Sister Spit, the all-girl performance tour that tore up the United States at the end of the last century” as, among other things, “the my-poetry-can-beat-up-your-theory menace.” I like that. That’s funny. I value poetry a lot more than academic writing. I’ve been dealing with some things and been pretty sub-versive lately (get it?), but I still see a poet in the mirror. And will even if I do finish that book about 18th-century theater history.

I don’t know if I can reach Tea’s subversive heights, but I was busy writing this today instead of writing for money. Taking an actual day off work to prioritize whatever creativity showed up. Not wearing pants. Reading literature in the current administration. You do what you can.  I could murder some ice cream right now. Chocolate? I like eating it with a fork.

 

The portrait of John Adams by J.S. Copley belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I quoted from Michelle Tea’s piece “Sister Spit Feminism,” in her new book Against Memoir, published by Feminist Press. I highly recommend it. My talk and other good ones are available at King’s Chapel on the Freedom Trail, Boston.