What Makes Creativity So Hard?

People talk about how hard it is to write, to paint, to create. They’ll talk about the time commitment, having to learn the craft, struggling with prose or dialog, character development or plot arc.

Sure all of that external stuff is hard.

But you know what makes it really hard? Yourself. Not just the voice of the inner critic, but days when you know you need to plant your butt and work, but discouragement is a weight on your hands, imprisoning them. Or the evil little Comparison Gnome that whispers you’ll never be as good as…(add anyone you want here). Or the stuffy accountant voice that points out the money you spend vs. the money that isn’t coming in. Or any of the thousands of ways we tell ourselves we can’t. Or shouldn’t.

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The writing space left all alone.

Today is a discouragement day. I have the afternoon to write, but instead I’m thinking of the things wrong with the current work in progress. Things that on any other given day I know I can fix during editing, but that today, weigh me down and whisper ‘is it really worth it?’

Recently, I came across this quote from Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

‘Often the creative life is slowed or stopped because something in the psyche has a very low opinion of us, and we are down there groveling at its feet instead of bopping it over the head and running for freedom. In many cases what is required to aright the situation is that we take ourselves, our ideas, our art, for more seriously than we have before. Due to wide breaks in matrilineal (and patrilineal) succor over many generations, this business of valuing one’s creative life – that is, valuing the utterly original, beauteous, and artful ideas and works which issue from the wildish soul – has become a perennial issue for women.’

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Along with trying to balance, or juggle, too many things

Easily said, right? Take our creativity more seriously. Value our creativity more. Ms. Estés goes on to talk about the inner wild woman needing to not act nice about protecting her soulful life but to draw the line and push that inner critic back where it belongs.

That all sounds wonderful when you’re reading it, but come on, what exactly does that mean? How exactly do you do that? This gives us theory but no nuts and bolts.

I think the nuts and bolts come through experience dealing with the external pressures on our lives that tell us our writing, or our creativity, aren’t as important as going to work, paying bills, cleaning the house, or whatever our brain tells us are our responsibilities.

After all, responsibility is more important than being selfish and doing something like writing a story or painting a picture that will never pay the bills. Right?

But over time, I think we all slowly learn that we need something that gives our souls some peace, even if it’s skipping work once in a while to go fishing, or take a walk in the woods, or see a play.

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Or nap under the Lupine

And those are the nuts and bolts we slowly learn. The tiny little things that allow us to mute the inner ‘predator’ as Ms. Estés calls it. That voice of discouragement, or criticism, or cruelty.

Today, with my weight of discouragement keeping me from writing, what tools will I pull out to bury it?

I’ll go for that walk in the woods. I’ll make some tea. I’ll read for a bit. Maybe I’ll look for some new music for inspiration. I’ll allow myself to be discouraged, to think everything I’m writing stinks, because today, it all does stink. I’ll allow it to stink for a while, and then I’ll email my fellow-writer and tell her why I think it all sucks. She’ll come back with what she’s struggling with in her current project, and we’ll laugh, problem-solve, figure out what honestly does reek and need to be deleted, and what just needs to be polished a bit to shine again.

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Where I’m headed shortly to ‘walk it off’

So my nuts and bolts: acknowledging the voice that’s preying on creativity (today, discouragement), recognizing it’s a temporary thing and will pass, knowing stepping away for a bit will help, and then sharing with someone who knows exactly what it feels like and who will keep me from doing something stupid like deleting the whole book. Or from doing something dramatic like declaring (with hand to brow) ‘I’ll never write again!’.

All tools that have taken me a lot of time, trial, and error to learn how to use. To learn what works.

Today the discouragement is heavy. Maybe in a few hours it will have eased. Maybe in a few days. Either way, it will eventually fade.

For a while anyway.

Because creativity is hard, and we’re our own worst enemies.

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The writing space, soon to be occupied

Velveteen Fifi

When I was three my dad gave me a stuffed dog. He was sick by then and paralyzed on his left side. I don’t know if he went to the effort to have someone drive him to a store or if my mom chose it.

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Me with a velveteen hat, and dad off to the side in his wheel chair that he would give me rides in

Either way, it was a kind of ugly, kind of weird stuffed animal. She was pink with a white patch on her chest and long floppy ears. Her body was soft and cuddly but her head, too large for the body, was made of something hard. That head was also so heavy that the soft neck wouldn’t support it. The head always flopped over like her neck was broken. But still, she was the last gift I received from my dad before he died.

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Me at six weeks when dad could still manage to stand

I’ve always been the one to buy the plant that’s dying on the sale rack, the pot with the lid that doesn’t fit right, the item others pass by or laugh at. I feel sorry for inanimate objects that no one wants. I think it’s the fault of that hard-headed stuffed dog. Who in their right mind would have bought her? Obviously one of my parents. Obviously the empathy with deformed objects is hereditary.

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At some point I decided I should name that dog, although I had no interest in doing so. I felt I should love her more than anything because she was a gift from my dad. I pretended to love her more than anything. I named her after a kitten we had at the time. I made sure she rested on my bed between the pillows in a place of honor. I kept her for many years because I felt I should. I remember one time being a teen and upset about some drama. I held Fifi close as I cried because it seemed like something I should do, as if a stuffed dog would comfort me because the person who gave her to me was gone. But even in the middle of crying and clutching that hard head, I felt stupid, like I was putting on an act.

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I never got attached to Big Doll either. This cute sibling inherited the hard plastic doll.

Eventually, well into my thirties, I finally got rid of Fifi. She was ratty by that time, with most of her body stuffing gone. The head was still intact though. I wonder two things now. One, why I never cut open her head to find out what was so hard in there. And two, if I had kept her, loved her more, would she have turned into a Velveteen Dog and come to life?

Our son had lots of stuffed animals, as most kids do. Oscar was the most loved. A little black and white dog that now sits on my bookshelf. Our son had to sleep with Oscar every night. And any parent will know what comes next. Oscar got lost. Oh, the drama! The heart-broken tears at night when he had to sleep alone!

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Our son out for a walk with his grandpa, and a real black and white dog, Jello

We searched the house. My parents, who had given him Oscar, got online (a momentous feat for them), found the company, and ordered another. The two dogs looked almost identical but this new one was named Fraser. That was acceptable to our son because at the time he was an avid fan of Due South and the main character’s name was Fraser.

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Oscar on top, Fraser on the bottom

Of course after Fraser arrived, Oscar was found. Our son had used him as a basketball for an indoor set, and Oscar hung suspended in the basket netting. Our son then slept with both.

He clearly loved them, which is why we still have them. He clearly loved them for real, unlike my pretend love for Fifi. I’m more attached to Oscar and Fraser than I ever was to Fifi. So maybe she wouldn’t have ever come to life after all.

In spite of my recent post about how we accumulate way too many things, I find myself wishing I’d kept Fifi. She could be up on that bookshelf with her ratty pink fur and broken neck and tipped-over head, right next to Oscar and Fraser.

Proof that maybe she was loved after all.

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Dad and me at three weeks. 

Things

There’s this teapot. Pale turquoise and old. It used to sit on a little table behind my grandmother’s chair. Whenever we visited Aunty, as we called her, it was a backdrop to her rocking and telling stories. When she was headed toward her end days she gave things away. She asked me what I wanted and I told her the teapot. Not because it was worth money but because when I see it, I see her there, in that chair.

So where is the teapot now? Safely kept in a high cupboard. My husband has a habit of breaking things. I’ve learned over the years that things actually mean nothing. They’re just objects. Their value comes from the stories and memories, which can’t be broken or lost. So I don’t get too attached to things anymore. And if there is something I’m attached to, it gets placed in an out-of-the-way spot. Of course I recognize the teapot has no value in that cupboard. I rarely remember I have it. Someday my son will wonder why I kept that old thing I never used.

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The delicate, almost translucent, tea cup on the right is even older, belonging to my great-grandfather. The pitcher was also Aunty’s and she always used it for orange juice. And thats granulated honey in the microwave.

Occasionally I come across this popular writer’s prompt: ‘what do you carry?’. Of course there are so many interpretations of this question, from the emotional burdens we carry, to our secrets, to our things and how they reflect on our life. What do you carry?

I spent most of July traveling in Scotland and Denmark. The first time I went to Scotland, in 1979, I had a small backpack that carried all I needed for six weeks. This time I had a large rolling bag to check in and a smaller bag for under the airline seat.

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Very old things, ivory and bone and amber, in Rosenborg Slot (castle) in Denmark, built in the 1600s.

I packed way too many things. Partly because I googled Scotland weather and read it was raining, rather than contacting friends to find out they were having record-breaking heat. The woman I traveled with packed even more, and then bought luggage to hold all the things she bought. She traveled with six pairs of shoes and four different jackets, all the same style, but different colors. I don’t even own six pairs of shoes.

In airports and train stations and buses, I saw the things we feel we need to carry. So much paraphernalia. So much stuff. Especially on the planes. I feared we would never get off the ground. It was rare to find someone traveling light, and typically when I did, it was a young person with a backpack.

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Things the Vikings carried 1200 years ago, now in the Viking museum in Aarhus, Denmark.

Why do we need so many things? Is it a sign of our culture, a sign of affluence? Would any of those things we feel the need to travel with help us if the plane crashed on a deserted island? Would six pairs of shoes keep you alive? Then why do we need them?

It’s not just traveling overseas that I see this. Every Friday when I leave work I see the same thing on the highway. People headed east for the weekend, hauling huge trailers, driving giant bus-like motor-homes that in turn tow boats and smaller cars, or more trailers. All of it full of the things they can’t go a weekend without.

Things make life easier but they also weigh us down, physically and emotionally. I came home from this trip promising myself I’m going to get rid of stuff.

Except the teapot.