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 —

Poems to inspire

You must learn one thing. The world was made to be free in.” — David Whyte, “Sweet Darkness”

I often read favorite poems aloud in my writing workshops. I do this not only because I love good poetry, but because I believe everyone will benefit from exploring it. The right poem can work magic, and even change a life.

Typically, I select poems that remind us to honor our true nature — or encourage us to keep working even when we’re blocked or discouraged. Some, like David Whyte‘s poem, below, ponder the loneliness of being an artist or a creative outsider. Others, including a Billy Collins poem I’ll share later on, offer writing advice with a sense of whimsy and humor. My students seem to enjoy discussing the poems — even the ones who claimed they never cared much for poetry — and many ask for copies to take home.

It’s important to read a poem several times, listening for new meaning to reveal itself.  Whyte’s “Sweet Darkness” is a longtime favorite of mine. But after rereading it in the new year (with middle-aged perspective) I find that different lines touch a chord in me now. This time around, the poem reminds me that life is short. It urges me to fill my days with non-toxic, supportive people — and to get on with the work I was meant to do.

Today I’m excited about launching a new series for this blog. Every week or so, I’ll post a poem here that speaks to the creative process, or inspires me in some way. At the end of each poem I’ll include the name of the book in which the work originally appeared — in case you’d like to read more of the poet’s work. I’ll save all of the poems in a new category titled “Poems to inspire.” I promise they’ll be accessible — and appeal to everyone who dreams big and deep. — CL

SWEET DARKNESS
By David Whyte

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone,
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your home
tonight.

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

–Reprinted from The House of Belonging, by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press); 1997

— Top photo, “Winter Sky” (copyright) by Cindy La Ferle —