It’s like when you unexpectedly hit the end of the ice cream container and you start running your spoon around the edges of the bottom to secure a couple more mouthfuls. Or when you add a bit of water to the last of a spaghetti sauce jar and swirl it around for an extra half-serving. Or, having coiled up the old tube of toothpaste long ago, you begin using your thumb to push out 10 more brush-worth’s. Or when you see just how long you can drive with the gas light on in your car, expecting any moment for it to sputter and quit.
That’s how I’m feeling with my creativity these days. Down to the bottom. Almost out. One last drop. Where it went, I don’t know. (Well, I do, kind of. In part at least: The last four months have been consumed by a dreamy, fairy-tale romance, but that’s another story.)
It’s a scary place to be because creativity and creative inspiration are so elusive. We can’t just go out to the (locally owned) store and buy another jar of creativity.
For me, creativity comes from the union of disparate ideas, concepts, emotions and images, combining them in a way where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts to create a bigger idea and better understanding of the subject matter. But how does that convergence happen?
In one realm of the creative job I have – illustration, something I’ve been doing for about 15 years – it has at times felt like I’ve had a teeming cauldron of creative components swirling in my head, ready to be ladled out. I just needed to find the right keys to unlock them and the right glue to piece them together. What has happened of late is that I go into my brain and the stove on which that cauldron sits has seemingly been left on overnight, the stock has burned off and what is left is beginning to stick to the bottom
Freaked out, I began looking for answers and found some in writer Elizabeth Gilbert of “Eat, Pray, Love” fame, who did a TED Talk on the origins of creativity. The problem, Gilbert says, is that too many times, creative people take on the burden as being sole originators. Creativity is something borne within us.
“Allowing somebody, like one mere person, to believe that he or she is the vessel, the font, the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile human psyche,” Gilbert said.
By contrast, the ancient Greeks and Romans thought of creativity not as something inhabited or produced solely by humans but in collaboration with gods and other mystical beings. A person wasn’t a genius but had the help of a genius, an external, fairy-like helper and contributor.
She recalled Tom Waits having an epiphany one day in the car when a melody floated into his head, and, having no way to record it or write anything down and feeling the anxiety of losing this creative moment, he peered out the window to the sky and said, “Excuse me, can you not see I’m driving? Do I look like I can write down a song right now? If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment when I can take care of you. Otherwise, go bother someone else today.”
She adopted this approach in hopes to take the pressure off of her being the sole creative generator, sitting and stubbornly and grudgingly writing and rewriting sentences, peering into the corner, waiting for the genius to join her.
“Maybe it doesn’t have to be quite so full of anguish if you never happened to believe in the first place that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you, but maybe if you just believed that they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source …” she said.
Gilbert’s advice boils down to this: Keep showing up. “Continue to do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it.”
So that’s what I’ll do. I’ll keep showing up, asking and asking and asking again if that once-familiar creativity gnome wants to take a little ride.