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Midland, Texas, United States
I write. I make stuff.


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Creativity Doesn't Have to be Pretty

I woke up this morning before the alarm went off and couldn't go back to sleep, excited about finishing this sewing project I started yesterday and filled, once again, with the sheer joy that comes from Making Something.

Then I made a big mistake. I picked up a magazine I've been looking at, little by little, one of those glossy, expensive magazines full of eye candy. And I curled up with my coffee, my head full of ideas, and read a couple of the articles. And I swear, it knocked every bit of joy out of the morning, every bit of creativity out of my head, every bit of excitement right out of my body. Stunned, I put the magazine down and started thinking about this: why do the things--the magazines, the blogs, the websites--that purport to inspire us so often drain us, instead? Why are they so often like cotton candy, fluffy and pretty and so insubstantial they melt away to a glob of annoying saccharine stickiness? The magazines about creativity are never about the most creative people I know, the ones doing raw, exciting, passionate work. The homogenized, packaged, prettied-up lives are the opposite of creative, and I think we're all losing touch with that in our blog/website/etsy/workshop-laden world.

Why is that?

[Editor's note: I thought it would be obvious that I am NOT talking about any of the magazines for which I write, but just in case, let me make that clear. I am not so foolish as to dis the ones I work for or to work for ones that would make me miserable.]

Then I thought of something I tweeted earlier this week, about how we want artists to be wildly creative, but we also want them to share our beliefs and values. We don't want them to have ideas we don't support and to believe things we think are foolish. We want them, in short, to be like our idealized versions of ourselves. When I wrote about not liking children, for example, some people were offended. Everybody likes children. If you don't, there must be something wrong with you. Because we really don't want people to be different. We don't want eccentricity or wild creativity; we want creativity we can see coming easily to us, something we can do in a pretty room in our spare time. I think we've all been done a huge disservice by the fact that everything has to be made pretty and mainstream and accessible, giving us the idea that this is what creativity is like and this is what a musician is like and this is what an artist is like.

Here's a thought I'm having this morning: creativity is one of those words that are heavily freighted--we all have ideas about what it is, and we have staunch beliefs about what it is and what it isn't. Let's try this, just for the purposes of this musing: let's say "creativity" is not that "let's make crafts today" urge but is, instead, something you can't escape. It's a drive, a passion, something at the core that you can't do anything about and can't resist. If you try to ignore it, you find yourself miserable, depressed, unhappy, lost, frantic, deadened. I'm thinking here about those of us who don't always find the creative urge to be a choice. For us, it's not necessarily Our Happy Place. If we're not making something--whatever form that takes for each person--our lives are half-lives, pale, sickly things hardly worth living. It's not about sitting down and downloading a pattern and going to Michael's and buying some craft felt and setting aside two hours on a Saturday evening. There's nothing wrong with that--do NOT whinge at me, deliberately misunderstanding what I'm talking about here! Because, people, that drives me nuts. You're smarter than that, and when you deliberately take something out of context and start griping at me about it, I think, "Hello! Who taught you how to read all the way through and not pick individual sentences as themes? Well, they would be disappointed in you now. Let's try to focus here, shall we?"

The kind of creativity I'm thinking about this morning isn't like that. It's the necessity to make something. It's taking a heap of crap--paper or metal or wood or, in my case, cheap fabric--and tearing it up and cutting it and putting it together, getting lost in the process. It's not so much about the outcome. You don't know what the outcome will be. You have no idea. That's not what it's about. It's about the making. It's like a need, an addiction--an addiction to the flow, the high, being in the zone. If you've been working with the materials for a long time and have honed your skills and mastered the basics, the outcome may often be marvelous. But in the moment, in the time you're crazy in there with bits of fabric littering the floor and thread everywhere and pins stuck in your shirt and yardsticks and rulers and scissors on every available surface--it's not about the outcome. It's about that. Just that.

I don't know--I haven't done any Official Research. I've had it pointed out to me that I am not an expert on creativity because I haven't done Studies. Published scholarly papers. Etc. All my information comes from years of talking to people. What I believe is that, for many people, making something (stuff, or music, or poetry, or whatever) is a drug. It's what keeps our brains from driving us insane. Speaking just for myself, I know this: if I were not allowed to make stuff--write, stitch, whatever--I would lose my mind. I firmly believe that if my mother had known this, she might have been OK. For me, it's what makes my life what it is, rather than the endless stretch of anxiety it would otherwise be. Not that my life isn't marvelous--that's not it. It's that I have a brain that needs something, something to occupy it lest it turn on me.

My brain is like that charming character in the movie, the one who is the perfect companion, witty and urbane and charming, telling fabulous stories and making you laugh until you snort. You step out of the room for more brandy, and when you come back you find him stark naked, holding an Uzi to your mother's head, demanding you stick pins in your eyeballs and sing the Swedish national anthem. In Greek. So you learn never to leave him unattended, never leave him to his own devices. Don't leave the room to get another brandy.

I worked on this garment for over 5 hours yesterday, and I was happier than I've been in a long time. Not to say I haven't been happy, but this? I don't know, never having been a drug user, but I've got to believe it's like being on some really fabulous drug high. It's almost finished, and the excitement has waned. I may enjoy wearing it--imagining the fun it would be to wear is what propelled me into the project--but the act of taking this pile of crap (a thrifted jacket, some cheap fabric--all dyed together) and turning it into something that didn't exist until I imagined it--that's what thrilled me so. There is nothing like it. For me, there is nothing like the moment when you first realize it's going to work out. I literally jumped up and down and pumped my fists: "YESSSSSS!" If I could bottle that? Yowza.

It wasn't pretty. There's no tutorial in it. I didn't stop for a lot of photos. It wasn't me and a bunch of my girlfriends sipping tea and sewing lace onto placecards. It was more like digging in the mud or flinging dirt--the image I get here is of me, wild-haired (so you know it's a fantasy, since I have no appreciable hair), in ragged clothes, out in the backyard with a shovel, flinging dirt over my shoulder, talking madly to myself, oblivious to everything else.

People sometimes say they'd love to come and work with me. Maybe be my apprentice. I think that's sweet, and I love that people think that. But it would never work out. They think I'm this funny, talkative, entertaining person, sitting in my studio stitching. And sometimes I am. But when I'm really working on something? I'm talking to myself--literally, out loud, talking and humming, singing nonsense songs and making up rhymes, much of which I don't even notice. I carry on conversations with myself. I twirl around, dance. Wave my arms. I've become aware of this because there are days when The EGE is at home, and I'm suddenly self-conscious because he'll say, "What?" and I'll realize I was off in that other world, the not-so-charming one where my mind is completely absorbed in something and my body is just staying out of the way. I'm wearing pajamas. I haven't brushed my teeth. If you ask me a question--"Where's the new ink cartridge?"--I'll have to stop and stare into space, as if translating your question into my native Urdu. I used to worry about this because, frankly, I thought there was something wrong with me, while I try to process what you've just asked me. I drove my father nuts when I was a kid because I was always making these noises and humming songs and stuff. I wasn't aware of it--I was just thinking. He thought other people would think there was something wrong with his kid. Perhaps there was.

The most creative people I know are not necessarily the most photogenic or sociable. They're not always the people you're going to vote for for the school board. They may have opinions that make your teeth ache--I'm talking people who talk to trees and believe in fairies and have beliefs about religion that you might not find particularly palatable. They may not shower every day, and they may not like crowds. They may not live in a typical house, and they may not be someone with whom you could have an actual conversation. But, honey, they are making wonderful stuff! Paintings and collages, furniture and assemblages, clothes and jewelry. Fabulous stuff.

You will probably never see any of it. Because not everyone is someone you can interview or podcast or photograph for a pretty magazine, there are people out there whose work will never be the stuff of the mainstream. And that's as it should be. Because, sadly, we would then want to clean them up, send them for orthodontia, give them lessons in elocution so they could be on tv. We want them to vote for our candidates and love our charities and tutor our kids and come for cocktails. Soon they'd be wearing pearls and having tea and traveling the show circuit--and then what? Then they wouldn't be out in the yard, digging in the mud, talking to themselves and bringing something amazing into being.

What I have to do, for myself, is to keep them in mind--those I've met and those I will never meet but who are out there, living in the desert or in some small cottage or in an apartment in the Bronx, making stuff and smiling to themselves and never thinking about marketing or entrepreneurship or fame. I love to think that, at any hour of the day or night, they're out there, making something in a little room somewhere by themselves. This morning I would have been so much better off if I had thought of them rather than of the Women in Pearls. I need to clean my brain out with some good, rich mud so I can get back to work.


Maggie said...

Oh my god, yes! You described the compulsion, the need, and the high of creating perfectly. I came home from work last night and started painting. It wasn't a nice relaxing cuppa tea. It was brain burning, eyes practically glowing, every nerve on fire-didn't go to sleep until very late. But oh, the high!

This morning I have to take off my crazy artist clothes and slog off to work in slacks and a "nice" shirt. Bah!

Barbara L. said...

Oh, yes, there are a lot of those hidden creative folks. I see them everytime I go to a stamping or bookmaking meeting. Some do amazing work and all are creative.

And yes, please don't talk to me while I'm creating. My ears don't hear anymore now that there are no children around. I used to be able to understand two conversations at once but that ability has diminished.

susan christensen said...

A long time ago I was lucky enough to visit the Musee Picasso, where I had an epiphany which has stayed with me during those (inevitable) times when I question my sanity as I spend countless hours lost in the making: When it comes to Art, nothing matters but The Making - it doesn't matter if you show it, sell it, become famous, none of that. What counts is being in the middle of the process that I cannot live without: picking up pen, brush, whatever, slopping dye and paint and loosing my sense of time!
You caught it, right on, Rice!

Deb's Artful Journey said...

Yes! I feel like I have gotten away from this place... where my hands ITCHED with the need to create. I am looking for it, sometimes finding it and sometimes not. My 9-5pm definitely gets in the way. AND, looking at all the pretty stuff in blogs, mags etc then I begin to believe that my stuff needs to look like that or else it isnt good. I lose my inner compass and belief that ugly is ok. Of course my inner critic doesnt help with this.

BTW, Just Kids by Patti Smith is a great read & really describes the need to make art.

Anhelo said...

This just got in time for my weekly crisis. Thanks.

Annie Hooten - Art With Heart said...

Are you sure you aren't ME? I mean....every day when I read your blog it is like I am reading the thoughts in MY brain. Do you have some kind of power that you are able to suck the thoughts out of my head? If that's what you are doing, then THANK YOU.....because I couldn't have written it down as well as you. So you have my permission to keep on sucking!!!

Carolyn said...

"I'll have to stop and stare into space, as if translating your question into my native Urdu."

That makes me chuckle. I can relate 100%.

This is also why it is difficult for me to communicate about making art. And writing an artist's statement is daunting. (What, words? For art? I don't know how that's done.)

And that may also explain why blogs, magazines, and websites sometime drain us instead of inspire.

When I do find inspiration, it is often unexpected.

kitty said...

Just yes.

Jude said...

Oh, you just described my entire household, all three of us create this way. People love it but do not get it and I do not want to even think about explaining it to them.

lyle baxter said...

absolutely!I'm so glad I'm not alone!

Romilly said...

OMG!!! You've described me! (especially the talking, humming, singing, dancing and having to translate normal questions into native Urdu!)

I am very lucky to live with another obsessive writer/creator who does the same thing, so we can just say "I'm in my office right now" and the other understands... I don't know what I'd do if that wasn't the case!

Zom said...

I am so glad you didn't lose this post, because it is one of the best posts I have read on creativity. It will be interesting to see if your old comments return.

Emily said...

I'm glad to see this post didn't get lost either! Those are some really good thoughts on creativity and inspiration.

I think that's a big part of the reason the places I find a lot of creative inspiration are things like blogs or craft forums, where it's an individual posting about what they make and what they love because they love it and want to share. I love that it's possible to do things like that with the internet instead of having to rely on some big-name glossy magazine to tell you about artists all over the place.

Relished Artistry said...

I get it. OH, yes, I get it--in spades!! I have purchased so many magazines seeking fuel for the creative monster inside me, and it invariably ends up feeling saccharine and I get frustrated.

I read a lot of blogs, and I'm getting better at being able to tell which ones are written by creativity addicts and those that are written by the "tea and lace" crowd. I honestly admire your gusto, your drive, your sheer passion.

But I can't bring myself to lament the packaging of creativity as a product to sell in magazines because it makes too many people happy. It may not feed our addiction the way we creative addicts need it to, but I'm not sure that's what it's for... I look at creativity magazines as "museums" in a sense... I suffer from sensory overload when I go to those, and I inevitably shut down and clam up, stifling myself into idleness and incapacity.

Perhaps that's part of what you're feeling--a replacing of the thrill of making with the artificial stimuli of "snapshot glancing blows" of other people's work? At a certain level, a simple snapshot of a singular piece or handful of pieces simply can't do justice to the act of creation--any more than a single painting hanging in a museum can comment on an artist's philosophy or work ethic or zeitgeist.

I would urge you to look at those magazines in small increments, and use them as a launch pad to let your mind wander rather than let it fill up your head. Use them rather than let them use you. I also have similar feeling about blogs and such--at a certain point I have to make myself step away and focus on myself rather than relishing someone else's accomplishments.

Just my 2¢! I LOVE your blog and your podcast! I'm addicted!! Keep up the good work!!

--Corey in San Diego

Sharmon Davidson said...

Wow! I really enjoyed reading every word, and I completely understand what you're saying here. I think making art is something like a drug, but maybe even more like a meditation, or a shamanic trance. I'm sure if someone could hook us up to an EEG machine while we're creating, there would be a different brainwave pattern. I know it's the only thing that keeps me (relatively) sane. As Paul Klee said, "I make art so I don't cry."

Ricë said...

Thank you! "I make stuff so I don't make everyone around me nuts." How's that?

Lei Fay said...

Ricë, What a great post! I to talk sing to myself, crave being in the zone/creating can't live without it. So nice to hear words from a kindred spirit. Thank you for the blog and the pod casts.

Lotus said...

This post totally speaks to my heart Rice! I am another that would go insane without the ability to create!
I have this ongoing battle at home... with hubby... who HATES what I do... cuz it takes my attention away from him... but if I didn't sneak those few minutes to stitch or draw... UGH!!!
Thank God for my job! I have frequent mini-breaks that allow me to be creative... I get little sips of sanity, but I get them!
What do I do when a major project wants to come to fruition, but I can't fulfill that need? ; )
Why is it that those we love don't seem to get that we NEED to do what we do? Like breathing?

TJ said...

I love this post. *sniff*
It's absolutely beautiful and painfully true.

Alyice Edrich said...

I agree with you about these magazines that seem to so caught up in being eye candy that they can sometimes miss the mark.

It's tiring seeing the same thing over and over when what we really crave, when searching for inspiration is something new to devour.

sandy said...

I saw a style book called styleliku. They have a a website too. That book and the website knocked my socks off...check them out. I think you'll like them.

Anonymous said...

If I didn't make things I would never survive the bad things that happen occasionally. I made a big mistake at work & got fired from my job. While I was out of work I hand sewed a memory quilt for my son and made grocery bags for everyone I knew for Christmas and several other projects. I would have gone off the deep end if I didn't have my creative drive. Diane

Mimi Torchia Boothby Watercolors said...

It's back!
I have been creative all my life and living on this planet, let's say it wasn't encouraged. In school, art class was when they handed out mimeographs of some line drawing and we had to color it in. Encouraged to all do it the same way. I HATED that. When I first went to Italy, I saw that most people were creative. Men made things, women made things. There was little standardization, each female cousin I met gave me a doily they made. And each one was different. People were proud of what they made and went out of their way to show me. A generation or two had already passed from the people who made their own pasta and bread regularly. The acts of making those things I KNOW are very satisfying because I have done it. I believe we as human beings have a need to create. THanks Rice, for bringing this up

Mimi Torchia Boothby Watercolors said...

So in my life anyway, creativity took a back burner. I don't know how many times I looked at a painting, a sculpture, some folk art and thought "I can do that" so much that one day I asked my husband "do you do that too?" he was surprised and said no.
My company for about 10 years offered to pay for a college education in ANY field so as soon as my kids were out of the house, I pursued a degree in Italian at Antioch university. I had to do research and write papers. I got my degree after a few years (I had already done half the work when I was young) and I don't know, all that writing woke something up in me. I had to WRITE I had to DRAW... I started to paint.. There are many roads we can take to do this, some people sing, dance, play music.
I wonder about all the other people, the people who don't "DO" any of this stuff. Maybe that's why they're depressed? I dont know.

Artist & Garden Designer... said...

Amazing Comments everyone!! I feel empowered!!
I know the feeling of being so far in a project, that hours go by, I plant gardens for a living.. I am addicted to the process of designing it in watercolors.. A vision on paper.. and then days later... I am standing in the middle of my painting!! Surreal!
*** I have a huge collecting problem though, in my studio... I look at one of my favorite magazine WWcreate, ( I have every copy) and I LOVE to see others studios, WOW!! its so cool to see how they put every thing! ... In reality, I cant hardly even get my door open !! My friends say: " Just throw all that junk away.." but I cant get past the vision on seeing the entire space as an art piece.. its all hatching there waiting to be born...I painted 27 pictures last week and no one will ever see them, but thats ok.. because I just enjoyed doing it for sanity!! I wonder if WWcreate makes the real artists clean it all up for publication...? LOL
Thanks so much for always putting yourself out there!...xxoo

Louisa said...

Of course everyone cleans up the studio before photos are taken! But wouldn't it be way more interesting if a photographer just showed up at the door one day and nipped in really quick to show the space as it truly is? In the midst of that creative zone with materials flying everywhere and the artist in the middle of it all with wild eyes, red and purple hands and paint on her pajamas? Now that's a magazine article I'd want to see. LOL!!

I make stuff because I just can't sit there with my hands in my lap. And also because I really want the thing that I'm making.

Carla Sonheim said...

This should be required reading for everyone, Ricë!

Caatje said...

Oh Ricë, what an absolutely fantastic post! Thank you so much!

Pretty Things said...

Most excellent post -- really thought-provoking!

Ricë said...

Thank you all so much--I really appreciate your taking time to read and comment, because I think this is a REALLY important conversation. We're fed this idea of perfectly-dressed women sitting around with their friends in a gorgeous studio (who paid for that, you have to wonder?) laughing and having tea and making this stuff that's all perfect and lacy and lovely, or paintings that are always shiny and bright, or whatever. We don't get to see what the rest of us are doing. If I were wealthy (and better organized, and had publishing skills, and, and, and), I'd create a magazine that shows Real Creative Life. Alas, it will never happen--not pretty enough, and the people with money to buy magazines with fabulous glossy photos (which cost a LOT) wouldn't want it. Sigh.

Del said...

Aaaaaaaa!!!! Que hermoso post!! me siento identificada, comprendida, no estoy sola y lo mejor: no me estoy volviendo loca!!!! (si estuviera loca, no quiero la cura!!)

Ricë said...

Good for you, Del. And good for me--I could still translate and understand--and here I thought I'd forgotten it all~~ yay, us!

Cheryl Razmus said...

Rice, you don't have to be rich to publish the real story of creativity. You have your blog and you have us, and working together we can all teach each other what true creativity looks like and feels like. That you so much for helping me know that I am doing just what I need to do.

Parabolic Muse said...

Rice, I was alerted to this post by Zom, and I'm so glad. I put a long comment on her site, but I will just say here that you've really hit several nails on their heads. I'm glad to have the opportunity to read it.

Now... back to your fabulous podcast.

Jhana Bowen said...

Hey Rice
I really enjoyed reading your blog. I love how wildly passionate you are about your creativity, I know what you say about beauty and how creativity is not always needing to be pretty. Though the magical thing is that when approached in the way you speak about it, it becomes authentic and exquisite. It surpasses pretty and becomes stunning. I love old people and enjoy their wrinkles and stories, I love the cracks in the pavement, the patterns made in life by people and things that were meant to do something else but instead did it different. This organic pathway is what I find mysterious and beautiful. I love how you come across as unabashedly yourself. I feel this to be a delicious and wildly passionate sense of creativity which is inspiring.
Thank you so much for sharing, its wonderful to see!

ainelivia said...

Hi Rice, I found u through Caatje. This post really grabs me so I'm printing, will make a cup of tea and read and come back later.

Kel said...

this is one of the best things I've ever read about creativity
you really explain the headspace
the need to create
the whole thing

loooove it