Creativity as Calling and Compulsion.

I’m having one of those evenings when the words come easily.  In fact, I’m writing here because I had to take a step back from the manuscript and think about the structure of a very important piece of dialogue that I’m working on.  I knew that tonight was coming; I knew because it was presaged by tiny bursts of electric genius; paragraphs, even just phrases that blanketed my mind in a quiet happy awe.  I love evenings like this… it’s as though there’s a person sitting right behind you, whispering the words that come next into your ear.  Writing is a joy during these times, everything works, pieces just snap into place, your head feels full of light and noise and you are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt of your own genius.  Everything feels good; like being drunk, but without the gummy, numbed feeling.  Even my fingers, dancing across the keyboard, seem extra nimble and quick during times like these, and I admire them, their arching lines, that they know where to go without my eyes being involved in the process at all, and that they strike the keys beneath with just enough force to cause a letter to appear (pressing extra hard slows down your typing, you know).  Even the clacking of the keyboard itself seems like a joyful noise.

This is how creativity feels when things are going well.  There’s a bit of a frantic edge to it, and much to my own frustration, I would rather sacrifice hours of sleep than sacrifice this beautiful productive time.  It feels the same when I’m drawing or painting, as well, it just draws me in, and I swear, even if the fire alarm went off, I would finish the goddamn paragraph, biting down on my lip as smoke filled the apartment, before closing the laptop and dragging it outside with me.  It’s as though you’re holding a wild bird in your hand, palm open, and you don’t want to look away from it because you know in a heartbeat, or two, or five, it will wing its way into the sky, gone… possibly gone forever.  That’s the reason for the frantic activity and devotion; it’s because I’ve experienced the other side of this coin and it’s a side that I dread.

The other side of that coin is well-worn; it’s the side where you sit down to write… and nothing happens.  And you type and you type; even if it’s nonsense, because everyone tells you that when nothing will come, you should just write anything, even if it’s bad… as though simply accessing a deeply ingrained muscle memory will tap into the core of the creative mind somehow and resurrect it.  During times like these, I have even resorted to hand-writing, with pen and paper, to see if it helps.  I have changed venues.  I have, in moments of creeping despair, turned to that old devil alcohol… three or four drinks seems to be my sweet spot, enough to silence my inner critic, but little enough to leave most cognition intact.

So why the struggle?  Because creativity is a thing that we simply must do.  Art, in any of its myriad forms, is a sort of a calling, a sacred act… and it always has been.  Just as the priests of ancient mystic faiths were responsible for explaining mankind’s relationship with the wider world, so are we in the business of touching the human state with our muddy peasant hands, and then describing it and interpreting it and explaining it for everyone else.  Why?  Well, just as the life of the ancient mystic was fraught with abuses of the flesh and genuine psychological peril, so is that of the modern mystic, the artist.  The existence of humanity in the world is bizarre, ugly, and absurd, and touching that part of us and examining it is uncomfortable at best and horrifying at worst.  Have you ever met a truly happy philosopher?  The philosopher, after all, is simply an artist with no craft or guile.  The calling is the same; to bring the light of truth (or at least our version of it) to the world, and in using that light, to extinguish the willful ignorance of the observer at large.  Observing art allows people to witness this horror at a safe remove, and in a way that is inclusive rather than utterly alienating.  It brings people together, allows them to feel a little less alone during those times when the world doesn’t make sense, and gives them a fleck of beauty when everything around them feels unrelentingly hideous.  It tells people, someone else feels that way too, and does it in a way that is inspiring, comforting, sweetly sad, wondrous, beautiful, or all of those things.

And we do it because we have to.  Without the creative outlet, we experience a sort of a disease of the soul… we feel alienated, sometimes lost.  Existential anxieties creep in, and we become filled with shame and self-loathing.  We atrophy; we shrivel; we rot.  So you could say that we pursue this calling so that we can feel that we are okay; and in this it is like a compulsion… very like addiction.  I think that every artist that I have spoken to about these things has wished that they did not feel so compelled to do this.  Instead of writing this, I could be making a lunch for tomorrow, or walking downtown for a drink, or folding the heap of laundry that has taken up permanent resident status on my sofa, or working my way through a sinkful of dishes.

But instead, here I am, typing away.  Because I am one of the modern mystics.  Because I want to, yes, but also because I have to.  Because doing this makes the world make sense to me, and hopefully some of what I produce will help others feel that way as well.

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Author: adrennan

An artist and writer in Bellingham, Washington.

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