Drawing Creativity

So recently, I’m listening to the podcast The League of Awkward Unicorns, hosted by Gotham teacher Alice Bradley, because it’s inspiring and also, really funny. (For example, this episode is titled, “Nobody Wants Bloodsports In Their Home,” and you should listen to it.)

Alice was interviewing Jenny Lawson, of The Bloggess and author of Furiously Happy. Near the end, Jenny confessed to Alice that while she was working on drawings for her next book, she stopped writing.

“I just could not write during those periods when I was drawing,” Lawson said. “I had this fear I would never be able to write again.”

And it wasn’t just Jenny —Alice’s co-host Deanna Zandt said she “once asked a poet … what happens when you run out of words? He said, ‘You make new ones.’”

As a journalist, I’m not much of a believer in writer’s block. After a three-hour county commission meeting and your deadline an hour away, you come up with something.

But, I do know what it is to yearn to write something special, something true, something wholly unrelated to jail budgets, and to come up empty.

Living in NYC on September 11th, 2001, a strange thing happened to my brain. I kept meeting my deadlines, but when I tried to write something of my own, something personal, something true, I couldn’t spit out a word.

There are probably complex neurological reasons for what was going on in my head, but I think they boil down to this: Creativity is mysterious. Sometimes we reach for words and come up instead with pictures. We long to write a poem, but instead think up recipes.

What saved me in 2001 was that I’d taken a Gotham Fiction workshop. Eventually, I quit struggling with my essays, and started playing around with the homework assignments for class. Slowly, the words returned.

I didn’t become a fiction writer—what I came up with was god-awful—but I did grope my way back to my own stories, the ones that eluded me for months.

It’s not unheard among creative people. Recently, Fast Company shared some new research showing the more you explore new things, the more creative you become. Lawson’s experiments with drawing, my fumbling around with fiction, the Beatles plinking around on the sitar—sure, it looks like wasting time. What we’re really doing is setting off neurotransmitters and creating plasticity in our brains. We’re feeding our creative impulses, even when we think they’ve abandoned us.

Words sometime fail us, but take heart. There’s more than one path back to the page. Sit down at a piano or pick up a paintbrush, and be patient. The words will return to you, even if you have to invent new ones.

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