Create…or Go Crazy

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So my friend Roxanne invited me to a book club. While I was flattered by the invitation and honored to be given a reading assignment, I was also a little surprised. Book club? Are those things still around? Does Oprah know about this? I suppose you are going to tell me people are still playing Bunco, too.

The book selection for this particular gathering is Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Marie Semple. The cover is highly misleading. It looks like a beach read, which has a tendency to lower a person’s expectations, but mercy, what an enlightening novel. (Would anyone have ever taken Steinbeck seriously if the cover of East of Eden featured a cartoonish girl with big sunglasses against a turquoise background? Not likely.) This is one of those books that I did not want to end. I was sad the rest of the day because I had finished it.

But this is not why I am here today. Today’s lesson is about creativity and why we need to use it. This is highly relevant because it is the second occasion in as many months that a book has reminded me of the importance of exercising creativity: one, the non-fiction Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert; and two, this piece of fiction by Marie Semple. Both are brilliant. I wish I had written them. But I have had a creative drought of late, so I am grateful that Gilbert and Semple did the heavy lifting and the reminding. (Thanks, girls!)

Because of these books and some severe bouts of cabin fever over a long Christmas break, I have been thinking a lot lately about the damage that creative droughts can cause. I am not talking about droughts brought on by lack of inspiration—these particular droughts I am talking about are stupid and not very convincing, as in “I don’t have the time” or “These kids” or “It’s too cold.”

According to these modern writers, the dangers of not creating are pretty alarming. According to Gilbert, a person who is not creating in some way or another is going against nature. And we all know that seldom turns out well. Semple’s strategy is a little slicker. She takes us on a fictional journey to suggest that a person who does not create may go insane or, at the very least, become a menace to society—destroying stuff, running over pedestrians, openly and publicly shouting at strangers. And nobody really enjoys being around that type of person.

Being stifled apparently causes a lot of problems.

God must have wired us to be creative, to have some deep-seated need to make stuff. Why else would Hobby Lobby exist? No human could possibly manufacture, on his/her own, the desire to buy tiny beads and glue guns.

Places like Michael’s and Hobby Lobby are so uninviting—everything is taken apart and scattered throughout the store, with an understanding that you are to gather up some of those pieces, exchange money for them, take them home, and put them back together. Everything is so unfinished. It’s all very stressful. To a couple of my kids, such places are playgrounds of dreamlike proportions. Disney World itself doesn’t offer this many portals to the human imagination, they would say. This propensity to craft and make and build goes back a little on my father’s side, and there are occasional spots of it on my mother’s side, but genetically speaking, they didn’t get it from me. That’s how it works in most families, I would guess. Some have it; some don’t. But if you read Semple and Gilbert, you come to understand that everyone does actually have a NEED to create something. It doesn’t have to be on a canvas or with a table saw. It might be the words on a page or the notes in a song or a website on the screen.

There is an adjective that comes close to describing this condition: “fecund.” It means nothing even close to the gross word it sounds like, and it doesn’t entirely capture the essence of this need to create; it’s more about the ability. But it’s in the neighborhood. It’s close. Use it if you want.

Back to the danger of not following this law of nature. Within the pages of Gilbert’s Big Magic is her recurring claim that because we are made this way—made to create—we had darn well better be creating something. If Gilbert were to sit at a table across from Semple and her cast of fictional characters, there would be a lot of nodding and tales of “Yeah, because if you don’t, you might begin exhibiting symptoms of senility–or at least menacing behavior. Let me tell you what happened to me.”

Senility may have its appeal, I will grant you that. A person can get away with a lot of crap when the mind is slipping. But we can all agree that if we can prevent such slippage, we should. Exercising a little creativity every now and then appears to be the preventative. I take this as a personal warning sign, lest the tongues start wagging: “She went crazy, you know. She should have painted/written/sculpted/composed/designed more. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be putting clothes on the cat …”

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