Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to attend panels offered by the Conference on World Affairs. I sought out the panels about creativity, spirituality, poetry, and stories. I heard a lot of things that affirmed my own experience, and other things that deepened my understanding, or challenged what I thought I knew. I’m still synthesizing it all, and one way I do that is by writing, so here goes:
Jim Borgman talked about his experience with his challenging work schedule as a political cartoonist for many years. He said he felt like Prometheus, having his innards gnawed out every day and trying to recover and fill the void every night. And it occurred to him that a better metaphor would be to think of himself as a flute, which isn’t consumed by the air that flows through it, and as he held that image in mind, the creative process stopped draining his energy. It wasn’t the first time I’d met the metaphor. I’ve often heard my dream sister, Suzanne Rouge, offer the prayer, “Let me be the hollow bone.” The image has been incredibly useful to me over the years. In my writing practice, I’ve long had the sense that the writing flows into the top/back of my head from someplace above and beyond myself, and flows out my hands. The other metaphor Jim suggested was that of a satellite dish—catching the creative vibrations and channeling them into something that could be shared with others. This also resonates with my experience—the “listening” that I do, the “tuning in” to what wants to flow through my head and fingers is very like being a satellite dish.
Yet even with that personal experience, I had only had glimpses of the epiphany that Jeff Lieberman offered from his experience. He talked about how he grew happier once he let go of the hope or expectation that the creative work he was doing would bring some future reward and just focused on the present moment, on the work at hand. I’ve certainly come to the conclusion that I write for the need of writing more than the hoped-for reward of recognition for the work, or I wouldn’t still be writing after a couple of decades without the success of, as I long defined it, getting a novel published by a New York publisher. It’s tricky to have a goal and yet not be attached to whether or not it’s achieved. Lately, though, I’ve been able to let go of the attachment to that goal, as other creative possibilities have presented themselves. Hearing Jeff’s experience reinforced that for me, though I’m aware that the attachment of my own sense of self worth to the work that flows through me is a habit of mind and that I’ll need to notice when I slip back into it.
James Tanabe offered what was for me the most compelling metaphor of all. I’ve often said that my writing practice is like breathing, meaning it is as automatic and important to me as the most fundamental act of living in a body. Yet I hadn’t really thought of it as James expressed it. He said creativity is like breathing—we experience inspiration (of breath or idea) and must follow with the exhale (of breath or creative act) in order to breathe in again. I had such an “aha” moment when I heard that. It reinforced Jeff’s discussion of how the universe was creative long before we as humans were around to think about creativity, and that we are a natural expression of that creative impulse. Of course, creativity is as essential to our lives as breathing. When the ancient religious traditions speak of humans made in God’s image, they speak of our creative urge, more primal than fear, beyond the limits of language. Thinking about that helps me overcome the habits of mind that want me to hold back my creative urges out of fear. I can only be afraid of success or failure if I attach the doing of the work to the possible outcome—the ripples in the pond—of the work itself.
Thanks to all the panelists at CWA. I have plenty more still to think about!