Shifting creative gears

Enjoy a tiny adventurous moment close to home. It changes your perspective, reminding you that the world is deep and rich and full of color and miracles.” –SARK

A lot of us are stumbling over creative blocks lately. Those who live in the wintry Midwest and Northeast blame it on lack of sunshine. Or cabin fever. Even if things are going reasonably well in other areas of our lives, we might gaze out our windows at the icy moonscape that once bloomed with roses or black-eyed Susans and feel twinges of ennui, or even despair.

Whatever the cause, it’s hard to get inspired when you’re sluggish and blue.

Last month I tripped over a huge creative block and hit a wall. For starters, what began as a satisfying home renovation project was abruptly stalled by a carpet order gone wrong, thanks to the evil Home Depot. (As a result, our master bedroom stayed torn apart for weeks.) Meanwhile, my elderly mom’s dementia-related health problems took a turn for the worse, requiring several trips to her doctor — and the hospital — for tests. As her sole caregiver, I felt helpless and exhausted.

Worst of all, I couldn’t seem to write or talk my way out of any of it. It was time to work from another side of my brain. Time to shift creative gears and to make something tangible and fun.

Bead therapy

Just in time, I received a clothing catalog featuring one of the coolest fetish necklaces I’d ever seen. Strung with African trading beads, brass trinkets, and a wild collection of charms, it evoked long walks on Caribbean beaches and cabana cocktails under the stars. A summer-fantasy vacation on a string!

I was tempted to pull out my credit card and purchase the fetish necklace online or over the phone. Instead, I decided to treat myself to the pure fun of making it myself.

Things were slow at the local craft store when I arrived on a gray Wednesday afternoon with the catalog photo in hand. The salesclerk working in the bead section was just as intrigued by the necklace, and eager to help with the project. Taking my time, I chose a few imported beads that had special meaning to me: a wooden bead with a butterfly motif (symbolizing transformation); another with a Celtic spiral; others that simply caught my eye.

At home I played with the beads until they became a necklace, stringing them together one by one and finding myself in a sunnier frame of mind. Of course, our master bedroom was still in chaos, beyond my control. And my mother’s dementia-related “episodes” were still unresolved. Regardless, I’d made something cheerful and new. The necklace wasn’t exactly like the one in the catalog — but I’d made it my own.

I often tell my workshop students that writing an essay or a chapter is a bit like stringing beads to form a beautiful necklace. Like the right bead, each word or sentence must do its share of the work to bring meaning or sparkle to the whole piece. You need to take your time, choose carefully, and take pleasure in the process.

That said, no matter what you’re working on, you could find yourself getting tangled up in “the process” at some point. When that happens, it helps to take a break. Or try making yourself a real necklace. — Cindy La Ferle

— Fetish necklace in photos by Cindy La Ferle —

“Advice to Writers”

The more you clean, the more brilliant your writing will be.” — Billy Collins

Last week I shared Jane Hirshfield’s “The Poet” (about a writer at her desk), and in the comment section we all compared notes on where we do our own creative projects.

Writers are inherently messy — in a good way. We save scraps of paper scribbled with notes and ideas. We collect more pens and blank journals than we’ll ever use. And when we’re in the middle of editing an article or composing a poem, we litter and trash our workspace. But I’m not convinced that’s what Billy Collins is talking about in the poem below.

It’s open to interpretation, of course, but I like to think Collins is playing with the idea of clearing the mind to make room for fresh ideas. Each time I begin a new project or assignment, for example, I need to push past my fears, self-imposed limits, and creative road blocks.

Or maybe Collins is talking about writing rituals — the small acts we must perform (procrastination?) before we can lift our “yellow pencil.”  What do you think? In any event, I think you’ll agree that Collins has both a wicked sense of humor and a knack for spotting the beauty in the ordinary. –CL

ADVICE TO WRITERS
By Billy Collins

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.

Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.

When you find your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.

From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants that followed you in from the woods.

–Reprinted from The Apple That Astonished Paris, by Billy Collins (The University of Arkansas Press); 1988

— Top photo “Blue Glass” (copyrighted) by Cindy La Ferle —