One of the best things about returning to NaNoWriMo last year was getting to meet a lot of new people in (and here’s the catch!) an environment where I didn’t feel awkward and out of place. The annual event draws all sorts, despite its rather specific mission, and someday I will catalogue them beyond just “impressive” and “unimpressive,” but that day is not today, because the point of this paragraph is to say that one of the impressive people I have gotten to know was asked these ten questions about creativity, and she tagged me on FB for my responses. It flatters me to be asked questions like this, as if to affirm that my floundering around for something to say and some way to say it has convinced one person that I am a creative person.
1. What is the first creative moment you remember?
It was probably that Sunday morning in first-grade Sunday school when, instead of cutting out tree trunks and leaves to illustrate the Zacchaeus story, I put swirls of white glue down on a piece of construction paper and let the glue dry, a tale I first told in this space here. As I said then: I was dismayed to learn the following Sunday that glue dries clear. Alas.
2. What is the best idea you’ve ever had? What made it great in your mind?
I’m going to consider myself a copout if I can’t think of something to write here, but this is a really, really challenging question. I think I’m going to answer these within the framework of creating art, not merely being creative, because otherwise my answers are all going to have to do with something I thought of to use in my classroom, which, while definitely a channel for expressing myself and while certainly a place for creativity, isn’t art and maybe isn’t really creating. So:
When I was in college, I struggled for a little while with the possibility that I might have low-grade clinical depression. One of my professors was convinced of it, and she suggested I see a doctor and perhaps receive medication for those times when my tendencies made schoolwork impossible (as they did every so often). I never did, but while I was tossing the idea around in my head for a few weeks, I wrote a poem called “Prozac,” in which I describe a pill bottle as something like a reverse cell, with tranluscent, amber-colored walls and an opaque window on whose opposite side is typed my name. You know, as a comparison to a regular room where the walls are opaque and the windows transparent. Later in that same poem, I describe how, when you open the medicine cabinet, you first see a reflection of yourself and then that reflection is pushed aside so you can get to the medicine behind it, a bizarre kind of putting on one’s face. The last line of that stanza is, “This is how long it takes you / to put on your face.” I’m not sure where those ideas came from, but I think they are pretty great because they are familiar imagery that work practically and symbolically to serve the poem. If not for the very, very last line of that poem, which I have never been able to settle on, it would be the work I’m most proud of.
3. What is the dumbest idea?
One of them (outside the context of creating) was probably making mashed potatoes with vanilla-flavored soy milk. Within the context of creating, I once wrote a poem where the persona compares trying to hang onto a dream after waking with trying to keep a firm grip on a handful of Jell-O. I would like to say on behalf of the witness, your honor, that he was twelve years old at the time. But yeah: he still should have seen how stupid that was.
4. What is your creative ambition?
Across all media and in every realm, my creative ambition is to get other creative people to ask, “How did you do that?”
5. What are the vital steps to achieving this ambition?
This question actually came up today while I met with my writers group. I’m not sure, but I think one way is to take a look at the work of writers who inspired me to ask, “How did she do that?” In this case we were talking about a woman writer, so I’ll stick with that pronoun for now. I do not know if this will help me achieve this ambition. It may have the opposite effect. For now, I think I need to go there just to feel it, so I can kind of get a sense of what I want my audience to feel.
6. Describe your first successful creative act.
When I was in fourth grade, my classmates and I were assigned to write a story. It was earlier that year that I (inspired by Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume) declared to anyone who cared that my new goal was someday to be a writer of novels. So this assignment was my first real try at my new chosen profession. We were supposed to illustrate them and fit them all on one page. I took the comic-strip approach, making six panels and writing a story called “The Adventures of Sir Charles the Tuna” (yeah, after Charlie the Tuna in the stupid Starkist commercials). Charles was kind of the bad guy. The good guy was Myron the Dogfish, and I don’t remember exactly what happened in the story, but I was proud of both illustrations and narrative, and my classmates loved it as well. I held onto that piece of paper for kind of a long time. It has since vanished. But I can still draw Sir Charles and Myron.
7. Describe your second successful act. How does it compare to the first?
I don’t know how to write about this without it sounding like a humble-brag, so I’m just going to state the facts and avoid having to confront certain terms by using their (just as well-known, I guess) abbreviations. In fifth grade, we wrote a lot of poetry in my GT classes, and when we came back from our Maui trip, one of our assignments was to write a poem about one of the sights we’d anticipated seeing and then to include the reality of seeing it (or something like that). I wrote about the Seven Sacred Pools of Hana, which started out kind of wordy and awkward, but as I worked with my teacher on revisions, the poem became more and more poem-like. It was one of my first lessons in saying more with less, and the finished product was only about twelve lines. There was one line, the final line in the poem, that I had written as “because you disappointed me,” and my teacher suggested “for you have disappointed me.” That one word-change made a world of difference to me, and it became my first lesson in poetic language. We later included that poem in our class anthology, and it was one of my favorite creations for a long time after.
8. Which artists do you admire most and why? What do you have in common?
Of current artists, I’m going with Lynne Rae Perkins, author of Criss Cross because she repeatedly causes me to ask, “How did she do that?” She does some ridiculously audacious things with her writing, and they all work because…well, if I knew why they worked, I might not be asking how she does it. One thing we have in common is our target audience: thoughtful young readers who pay attention to more than just a sequence of events. Other than that, I would be amazed if we had anything in common.
9. What is your greatest fear?
Daree (sorry; how do you make that accented E?) answered this with “losing inspiration,” and my answer is similar but different: running out of ideas. I think I will always be inspired to create, and in fact maybe inspiration is not something I care much about. As Madeline L’Engle, my favorite writer, said, “Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.” If I can stay disciplined in my work, I have hope that inspiration will come. But ideas? I feel like most of my really good ideas were some kind of luck anyway. The ability to come up with them seems not to be a skill I possess. I have spoken with some VERY creative people, people who make their livings on their creativity, and they say they don’t worry about it, that there is so much stuff out there for the generation of good ideas that all you have to do is be open to them. This tells me that (a) I know some very, very talented people and (b) maybe creativity is just a game I play around at, not something I truly am.
10. What is your idea of mastery?
I guess I’ve said this twice already, but if I can get a thoughtful reader to ask, “How did you do that?” I will consider myself to have mastered, if nothing else, whatever that is.