The Courage to Create

This morning I want to write about something that is important to me. The courage to create. Part of what I want to do with this blog is to explore the creative process and how it relates to how one lives their life.  People need to create. I’d go so far as to argue that the need to create is so huge that if one doesn’t engage in enough creative action, it impairs them in life. Now, I’ll take it a step further, to the personal level and talk about how necessary it is for me to have the courage to create.

I don’t know why or how…maybe I inherited my desire to create from my father, who had a very creative streak. Many memories of myself are of me making things. I remember a photo of me in a little Easter suit. My leg is up on some type of a sawhorse and I’m sawing a board. So what, you might say…. Maybe this just shows that I had an interest in carpentry. Well, what is carpentry, other than making things? Designing or using another’s design and making something.  It is creating. When my husband checked out many books from the library, then proceeded to make a little mini-Craftsman bungalow shed behind our house, that was creating. It was taking this urge that we have, this urge to act, to create.

If I don’t create, I get sick. By that, I mean my spirit starts failing me.  If I get caught up in the humdrum of daily life and forget to create, it catches up with me. I start to feel out of sorts and become disconnected. By the same token, though, I have often feared my creativity. It is a type of power and when that power looms large, it can take over and if we don’t ‘go with it,’ if we try to hold back or control it, our ego gets in the way and we become fearful. These thoughts aren’t new…or original. I realize many people have said these same thoughts and have expounded on this same theme. In fact, I’m borrowing the phrase itself from Rollo May, who wrote the book, The Courage to Create. I am not just rehashing what May said here, though, as his thesis was somewhat different. Here and now, I am talking about the personal exploration of creativity. Sometimes it stoppers up. When this happens, I’ve had to jump start it different ways. Sometimes I’ve had to drag myself into the shop and do a major overhaul. At those times, I usually head to the writings of creativity coaches Julia Cameron or Suzanne Falter-Barnes who show me how to kick start myself in a step-by-step way. Sometimes I need that.

When I was in high school, I was intensely creative. I remember making little boxes in my Dad’s shop… tiny ones made of many different things… gluing them, tacking them, using his vise and tools. Spreading things out, spraying or painting them with different finishes. Using brushes and toothpicks and Q-tips. One piece I still have… It’s not a box, it hangs on the wall and is called “Chiclets on a Board.” I took the long piece of wood used to weight the bottom of a window shade, cut it in pieces the size of Chiclets gum, carefully sanded the edges, making perfect little replicas. Then I stained them all…green, yellow or orange. After that, I took a piece of wood that was in my Dad’s scrap bin…it was about 8″ x10″, stained it brown, then glued all the Chiclets in columns on the board. It took a long time to make. And I was in the zone while I made it. Time meant nothing. In fact, at times like this, quantum mechanics bends time and we don’t exist in the everyday sphere.

I made many things. You always hear this business about children being creative but outgrowing it or having it sidelined. I believe it is probably all sidelined, not outgrown, and that every one of us has great creative potential. It’s easy to blame teachers who tell a child such and such or to blame coloring books that teach children to draw just a certain way, or to blame parents for channeling their children away from creativity because it’s not practical. All of these happen in the dominant culture in which I grew up, in great part, because North Americans don’t value creativity. In the United States, Puritans imported their work ethic. In Canada, Scottish immigrants who were Calvinists imported their work ethic.

Tonalá, Michoacán, Mexico. Feb. 1973. Photo by LeRoy Johnson, Jr.

But much of it is a continual reinforcement of core beliefs that suffuse the strata of society. Mexico has a very different approach that I learned about from an archaeologist who worked there, LeRoy Johnson, Jr. Each Mexican village had, or used to have, its own artisans and these people did all the weaving or painting, or pottery or woodwork. Whole families were artisans and they’d done this work for generations. Johnson gave me a a rabbit figurine from a particular Mexican village and a here is a photograph of a woman from this same village who is a member of a family that made such figures. In addition, the Navajo and Hopi make magnificent rugs and design patterns down for generations. All of this is reminiscent of the old guild system in Europe. But the dominant culture of North America has no such counterpart and doesn’t support or really even appreciate full-on creativity. Sure there are artists who have made their way, there are galleries, there are collectors, and there is an art industry built around the production and consumption of art.

But, in everyday life, most North Americans are pretty divorced from creativity, creative acts, and the creative impulse.

For me, it is important to listen to my own voice when it comes to this and not the voice of the society in which I live because these voices can give messages that are incongruent. My father was very, very creative. He had a knack for either replicating something precisely or creating something anew. I remember things he made…a mural of the nativity he painted on the picture window in the living room.  I have seen old photos of the Sylvester the Cat he painted on the tail fin of an airplane when he was in the Air Force. For my 40th birthday bash, which had a western theme, he drew cows onto huge refrigerator cartons, cut them out, then placed them in the ‘back 40.’

I have learned a lesson from my Dad, though. He was very creative but his life wasn’t suffused with enough creativity. He lived and died without exploring his creativity to the degree he might have, really, if he’d either been given the change or taken the chance. I was told by others that part of that was the schooling system he grew up with and part of it was first-generation immigrant parents. But when I reflect on what it is that I heard, I must reconsider. There is the opinion that he was so intelligent, he should have gone to college instead of being funneled into vocational school where he learned to be an mechanic as a teenager. And that is probably true. He graduated from a vocational-technical high school in Pennsylvania, instead of the academic stream high school because his parents sent him there. On the face of it, one could think, well, he just ended up being a grease monkey…except for the fact that he was working with his hands. Or that, when he became a white collar worker, it was better because he was conforming to social norms. When my Dad was in the hospital a couple of years ago, with a little help, he created a beautiful painting, one I love. To me, this is my real Dad.

Working with hands is very under-rated in our culture. If we work with our hands and, especially, if  our career consists of working with our hands, we are considered sub-par. The predominant thinking states that it is best to go to college, then graduate school, then do something with that education (in a way that is usually divorced from working with your hands). Often, what is expected of a child, a gender, a family, a nation, is that its children become lawyers, teachers, engineers. This is disastrous, though, and for many reasons. Because of this thinking, there aren’t enough electricians, plumbers, or locksmiths…people who work with their hands. Aside from that, such thinking is just snobbery and reflective of classism. We are taught that such work and these vocations aren’t of value or are lower class. However, I’m here to say that our culture has no balance because of this thinking. To divorce the mind from the hands, whether its plumbing or a pottery, is a form of slow suicide. For a culture or a person. It transform a culture into a nation of thinkers instead of thinker/doers. This leads to a population who can do nothing but white collar activity and who must, subsequently, hire everything done because they are not self-sufficient. I am a former ESL teacher and am in a position to know just how many young people are forced into becoming doctors, lawyers or engineers because their parents make them enter these fields without considering what their children want to do or which fields their children are best suited for, in the long run. I understand their position: they either want a better life for their children than they had in their countries or they want their children to make good incomes. But, how much of this thinking is about their own selves and not the person for whom they are making these monumental decisions?

Sometimes you find the rare individual who blasts through the fire door and lives outside the box. My husband is just such a person. He did all the requisite schooling and either found it wanting or lived his values and continued to work with his hands. He’d always had a creative streak and he’s never sold himself so completely to the idea of Modern North American Society that he has divorced his mind from his hands. Or heart.  So, he can and does straddle both worlds. We need people like him. Renaissance Men and Women.

In my life, I’ve always tanked when I lost balance, when I bought into the social norms to the degree that I lost sight of my creativity and stopped working with my hands in an intentional way. Because I truly believe that we are all very creative and that we’ve often been channeled away from that creativity, I believe that our world could be very different if we lived as we were meant to and derived meaning from a balance between the creative and all else.

For me, creating is imperative. Whether it’s ceramics or cooking or working with mixed media or avant garde art, the latter of which I don’t engage in so much at the moment. However, I nearly got an automatic ‘A’ in a college art class when I stood out from the crowd because I turned in intensely creative work. I don’t remember what the assignment was, but I do very much remember what I turned in and it was Classic Me. I’d taken an old ladder-backed chair and upholstered it in aluminum foil. The teacher, an amazing man named Leo Davis, flipped when I hauled it in. For my next project, I took my old childhood record player, placed a giant sugar cookie I’d baked on it that was the size of a vinyl LP. I’d rigged up a sort of hangman’s set-up over the whole thing and on the brace hanging over the cookie, I affixed tubes of frosting. When I think of it, it was really a performance art piece. I turned the record player on, then squeezed the different tubes and created an abstract, spontaneous design on the cookie. Then I broke the whole thing up and passed it around and we ate it. Davis flipped over that one, too, and I new that we were of like minds.

Since then, life has presented itself with challenges, but healing takes place through creativity. I have come back to clay, my original passion, the constant thread in my life, no matter where I lived, and it’s never done me wrong and, instead, has done a heck of a lot of good. To create with ones hands, whether it’s to engage in graphic design, like I did with my own studio, to design and make something to wear, like I did in high school, to cook creatively, like I did for a gourmet take-out restaurant, or to make little boxes, like I did on my Dad’s workbench, to have the courage to create is my lifeblood and when I don’t do this, I let myself down. Other times, I built or designed theatrical sets or painted with color and light as a light-sound tech. Or wrote for publications, journalistic and literary.

One must make a contract with oneself that is purely solo. This contract cannot be poisoned by any other thing, be it a thought, a look, an intention, an opinion, a person, a society or world. To me, the courage to create is what life is all about.

About Jan

I have a background in ceramics, graphic design and journalism.
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