On Creativity {And Buying Books}

IMG_3945Just when I think I’ve seen every book there is on creativity, I find one at the library sale that doesn’t look familiar. I say “look” because I have, more than once, bought a book I already owned only to come home and find the first copy glaring at me with shame from the overstocked shelves in the den.

“I’m right here,” author Alan Jones seemed to scream after I bought a second copy of Soul Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality, which I had re-shelved after deeming it “too much” several years ago. Now the book is required reading for my training in spiritual direction and I can say without exaggeration that the book, still a bit chewy but worth all my effort this time around, is changing my life.

Happily I did not find an extra copy of The Creative Spirit by Daniel Goleman, Paul Kaufman, and Michael Ray, when I got home from the library sale so I dug in and here is some of what I learned. (This edition of the book was published by Plume in 1993 as a companion to the PBS series of the same name, which ran in the early 1990s. I do not have a memory of watching the show, but sometimes it takes me longer than the average middle-aged goober to catch on.)

Stages of the creative journey:

  • preparation (get all the information you can and hand it over to your imagination);
  • incubation (sit with what you’re thinking about and invite your unconscious to the meeting);
  • daydreaming (allow your mind to cast aside its daily responsibilities and unnecessary distractions for a bit); and
  • illumination (put your ideas into action).

Because I sometimes find myself edging the pit of depression (especially during winter months), I appreciated this reminder: “Although no one enjoys frustration and despair, people who sustain their creativity over the course of a lifetime do come to accept periods of anguish as necessary parts of the whole creative process. Accepting that there is an inevitable ‘darkness before the dawn’ helps in several ways. When the darkness is seen as a necessary prelude to the creative light, one is less likely to ascribe frustration to personal inadequacy or label it ‘bad’” (p. 19).

What a gentle idea, separating our self-worth from our inklings. I think I’ll give that a try, just as soon as I re-work the draft (self?) I labeled useless yesterday.

And because I have long valued intellect and the ability to “figure things out,” however misguided such an approach is to a life of contentment, seeing that we really don’t have control over much, I needed to read this: “We often underestimate the power of the unconscious mind. But it is far more suited to a creative insight than is the conscious mind. There are no self-censoring judgments in the unconscious mind, where ideas are free to recombine with other ideas in novel patterns and unpredictable associations in a kind of promiscuous fluidity….Another strength of the unconscious mind is that it is the storehouse of everything you know, including things you can’t readily call into awareness….Further, the unconscious speaks to us in ways that go beyond words. What the unconscious mind knows includes the deep feelings and rich imagery that constitutes the intelligence of the senses. What the unconscious mind knows is often more apparent as a felt sense of correctness—a hunch. We call this kind of knowing intuition.” (p. 20)

And of course I loved that the authors, noting the work of psychologist Erik Erikson, value creativity in older age, providing examples of folks who didn’t give up after retirement and who instead fostered their desire to paint and dance and write: “Grand generativity is a wise and creative approach to nurturing others, an affirmation of life itself in the face of death” (p. 34). Oh how I long to be a grand generative. I think we should start a movement labeled thusly. Please join me.

As to flow, the authors, natch, mention Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi , and then offer this as a description of the sought-after condition: “Your skills are so perfectly suited to the challenge that you seem to blend with it. Everything feels harmonious, unified, and effortless” (p. 46). When you’re in the zone, so to speak, your self-consciousness disappears. What a lovely state that must be, like the Zen calligrapher whose focus is “just the stroke” and nothing else. No worry of failure, no questions about technique. This “no mind” approach is not about vacancy or lack. Instead, it’s a “precise awareness during which one is undisturbed by the mind’s usual distracting inner chatter” (p. 48). This is what we strive for in Buddhist meditation, of which I am a fledgling, but determined, practitioner.

In the end, the authors remind us of those key points that most creatives know but don’t always take to heart: stay playful (curious); remain alert (listen to yourself and others; don’t be intimidated); and be willing to make mistakes (use them as information, not excuses to give up). Remember that passion and perseverance are vital. Mechanics can be learned.

And I’ll add this: Drive and belief and self-confidence can be had, too, they just need to be nurtured.

I hope that on this very day you will feel inspired to go forth and be your best creative self.

Looking forward,

Amy Lyles Wilson

On Monday Morning {Sitting Down to Write }

DSC_0255I’ve promised my friend Sheri that I will write for one hour every day. I think it was my big idea, trying to get us both motivated to do what we say we love to do: write. So now I’m sitting here on a Monday morning, coffee hot, candle lit, jazz on the radio, and I’ve got nothing.

When working with clients, I advise them simply to start, when, of course, there’s nothing simple about this, except maybe the tools you need. Most everyone has pen and paper, and potential. But that motivation part is tricky. “Sometimes,” I say in my kind writing coach voice, “I make lists if nothing is coming to me during my writing session. Just begin.” And so I do.

  • Today I feel a little less sad than yesterday. Maybe it helped that I showered and dressed before 8:30 this morning.
  • I know the writing life requires a lot of solitude but sometimes it is too much for me.
  • A friend emails to tell me a young man in our city has killed himself; his grandparents are friends of hers. Only 28.
  • I should have my email off while writing.
  • I’ll be 53 soon, and if one more person says “it’s only a number” I might clock ‘em.
  • I’m in the process of getting rid of stuff I don’t need, use, or love. There’s more of it than I care to admit. Out it goes into the world to be needed, used, or loved by someone else.
  • Last week, unbidden, two people let me know how much I mean to them. A gift.
  • Fingers crossed that my precious stepdaughter gets the job.
  • The nurse from the retirement home called last night. Mother was sad and wanted to hear the voice of one of her girls. I needed to hear hers, too.
  • I fear I’m becoming one of those people who treats her dog like her child. Wait. I may have been like that since Quay Girl.
  • A volunteer training I just completed did not work out like I had hoped.
  • I called my priest friend to tell her I want to do more in the church. She wants more time to write. Such is life.
  • Maybe I should just “be.”
  • You’d think the meditation and centering prayer would be paying off by now.
  • I need to lose weight.
  • The hour is almost up!
  • Why haven’t those people called me back?
  • I miss Indiana.
  • I’m not sure how much longer I can keep watching the news.
  • What is it about the future that keeps captivating my attention?
  • Self-employment is hard.
  • I may have cut my hair too short.
  • Yay! It’s the Diane Rehm Show, one of my favorites.
  • Finished a great book last night, something I picked up on the road at a used bookstore: The Scent of God, by Beryl Singleton Bissell. Now I want to read everything else she’s written. Maybe I’ll pass it along to my friend Karen. I think she’ll like it.
  • My neighbor is having her windows cleaned. I’ve lived in this house for ten years and it has only now occurred to me that washing your windows from the outside might be something to consider.
  • Now more than an hour has passed since I first sat down to write. I must tell Sheri.
  • If I had a dime for every time someone has said to me, “You’re so sensitive,” I’d have a bunch of dimes.

How Many Books on Writing Does a Writer Need?

In preparation for my upcoming stint as an adjunct professor and writer in residence at the Earlham School of Religion, I’m making my way through all my writing books, to see what I can glean that might be of interest and benefit to the students. I thought about counting how many books I had on the topic, but at about number thirty-eight I became embarrassed because  I know, like many of you, that there comes a time in a writer’s life when he has to put down the how-to books and resist the urge to plan yet another trip to a writing conference, and simply, well, write. But we also know it’s not simple. Anything I can to help another person learn to call herself “writer,” I want to do. So I’m starting with my vast library, and I plan to pick out what I think are the juiciest parts and share them with my students. For now, though, I’ll be posting some of them here, in the hopes that you might let me know which resources you rely on most for your work. In the end, I’ll pass along the books I no longer need. Sooner or later I’ll feel compelled to buy some more anyway…

From May Sarton, in A Self-Portrait (Norton, 1982):

“It’s thought and feeling together, this is what makes the poem for me, when you can think and feel at white heat.”

“You have to be willing, as Yeats says, ‘there’s more enterprise in going naked.’ You finally do have to give something terribly intimate and secret of yourself to the world and not care because you have to believe that what you have to say is important enough.”

Writing That Takes My Breath Away

Often when I am struck by a powerful gathering of words I feel compelled to share. Here is one such example:

“While we were in Midland, Mom painted dozens of variations and studies of the Joshua tree. We’d go with her and she’d give us art lessons. One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight.

“Mom frowned at me. ‘You’d be destroying what makes it special,’ she said. ‘It’s the Joshua’s tree struggle that gives it its beauty.”

Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle (Scribner, 2005, 38).

Have you read anything lately that takes your breath away?

Give It Up in 2011

With a nod to the ever-inspirational Sam Davidson, here are 11 things I can do without in 2011:

  1. Clothes I haven’t worn in two years. I’m bagging them up now for donation.
  2. Duplicate copies of books that I bring home, forgetting that one copy already rests on a shelf or in a backpack waiting to be read for the first time.
  3. People who live to criticize.
  4. Wasted downtime. Use it or lose it.
  5. My obsession with getting an old car back that I wish I’d never sold.
  6. Fear of Skype.
  7. Worrying about things I can’t change.
  8. The third datebook I bought, hoping it will help me get more organized. As soon as I find datebooks one and two, I’m sure I’ll be on top of things and won’t need the third one.
  9. Comparing myself to others.
  10. Group emails with recipients’ email addresses visible. Repeat after me: “Bcc.”
  11. That extra 15 pounds.

Of Middle-Aged Dreams and the Demise of the Bookstore

I am a middle-aged goober who still has dreams, even though I don’t have as much time to get them accomplished as I once did, seeing that I’m staring 50 in the face. To wit: I’d like to lose some weight, write a novel, and buy an old farmhouse where creative types can come to write and commune and hang out. And I wanted, as much as anything, really, to have a book signing at the Davis-Kidd bookstore in Nashville. On November 2, that dream came true for me. And this week came word that the store will close by the end of the year.

Back in 1993, my parents sat with me at the Davis-Kidd café as I signed the papers to buy my first home in Nashville. The store was at a different location then, one that felt like home. My father was still alive, and I was thinner, and single, and dreaming of being a writer. It was the place where I heard Mary Karr for the first time; where I discovered the work of Ann Hood, a writer I would later study with at Chautauqua; where I spent many an enjoyable Friday evening listening to music and having dinner; and where I could find those literary journals no one else carries.

When Davis-Kidd moved to the Green Hills Mall a while back, it didn’t “feel right” to me, but I like to think I understand progress, and commerce, and foot traffic. And it still seemed like home in many respects, just a bigger, less cozy one.

Thank you, Davis-Kidd, for the books, and the tuna melts, and the memories. And the dream come true.

Rave Review for Festival of Faith and Writing

Last week I was surrounded by writers and word lovers and people who aren’t scared to ask questions about what it means to be faithful in the sense of religion. It was like being at Disneyland, only it was at Calvin College and there were no circling teacups or obnoxious songs about how small the world is.

One impressive voice of the many talented and brave speakers I heard is that of Sara Miles, a woman who took a bite of bread and tasted the grace of God. A woman who now devotes her time to being with those in need of food, fellowship, understanding, acceptance, or presence. And boy oh boy can she write.

I devoured Jesus Freak on the plane home from the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I will be dashing to a bookstore this afternoon to pick up Take This Bread. A woman worth reading, and, more importantly, being inspired by.

Another fine example of what a woman can do with pen and paper and passion is to be found in Jo Kadlecek with me in the picture. She’s the one on the left who’s not holding a copy of her moving book, Woman Overboard: How Passion Saved My Life (Fresh Air Books, 2008). Talented, funny, kind, and willing to take me out to dinner when I visit Massachusetts in the fall. A winning combination…

A revised version of this post appears at HerNashville.com/spirit

Agent Angst

Writers often contact me asking, “How do I get an agent?” I often respond, “I’m not sure.” Because, like many of the curves on the path to publication, it’s tricky. It’s also competitive. Where I find myself is cheerleading the minority, those few publishing peers who think you can get a fair deal without an agent. I’ve spent most of my 25-year publishing career with small- to mid-list presses. Today I work in acquisitions with a nonprofit religious publisher. We do not offer what many would consider “big” advances. But nor do we, in my opinion, take advantage of authors.

I do not think authors should take “just anything” that is offered to them. And I agree with those who say having an agent is a great way to go. With the ever-changing landscape of royalties, as related to digital rights, etc., it will probably become even more advantageous to have someone who can help the author “figure things out” with regard to contracts. But I do want to encourage those who don’t have agents: They may be hard to find, but there are opportunities out there that can be beneficial for both the publisher and the author. As with everything in life today, or so it seems, you can find information online about agents. You could start here: http://guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog/

Takeaway Tip: If you’re not already following agents, editors, publishers, and writers–especially those related to your genre–on Twitter, and reading their blogs, get busy.