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.