What comes to mind when James wants to write, he commented in March, is his life experiences mixed with current events.
Current events only matter because they affect life experience. Some effects are dire: reservists sent into combat, undocumented families torn apart, invalids denied insurance. Others are a matter of awareness and memory. Most American adults remember where they were when they heard about planes flying into the Twin Towers in 2001, or—if they’re old enough—President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 or even the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Forty-eight years ago today, President Nixon announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Protests erupted. The Ohio National Guard shot four Kent State University students dead that Monday. Effects rippled out. A mother couldn’t cross town to pick up her toddler from day care because riots blocked the streets. Another couldn’t find campus housing for her returning veteran spouse because college offices closed in the wake of the crisis.
Such experiences, largely unrecorded but seared into the memory of those involved, are the collateral damage of major public happenings. They’re partial answers to the question, what was it like to be there? Letters, diaries, and oral histories offer precious clues rarely captured in history books. Historical imagination helps fill in the blanks.
Well, duh, say the writers among you. Of course it does; we’ve had it. I propose a contrarian view. Any practice that demands continual creativity is likely to have dry spells as well as fertile ones. Don’t composers, philosophers, scientists, preachers, comedians, and cartoonists have times fresh ideas won’t come? Chefs known for culinary innovation, teachers or parents in search of new ways to capture a child’s interest—don’t they sometimes run dry? Are writers any different?
Yes, a writer may stare at a blank page and go blank. It can last an afternoon or five years. It can result from over-analysis, stress, perfectionism, trying to live up to previous success, fear of critical reviews, fatigue, distraction, or the inevitable ebb and flow of life. Of the two dozen recommended antidotes I’ve seen, most boil down to two: keep plugging, or take a break.
Maybe giving a name to creative dry spells magnifies their power. The mystique of the tortured writer paralyzed by writer’s block doesn’t help much but the ego. At least I suffer for my art. There’s less hubris in saying, I haven’t been writing much lately. It states a fact, not a condition. Putting less weight on the matter frees you to consider whether it’s a problem or just part of the ebb and flow of life.
In a poetry class at Wisconsin’s Write-by-the-Lake program, instructor Rita Mae Reese took us to the university museum to soak up a painting and write a poem about it. On a grander scale, that’s the core of Terry Tempest Williams’s Leap, a memoir of her love affair with the three-panel Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Williams writes with the eye of a naturalist, the pen of a poet, and the religious heritage of a Mormon who first watched birds from the shores of the Great Salt Lake.
Leap was in the house for years before I picked it up to read. What changed is that I assembled a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of the painting this winter. Sure, I’ve always liked Bosch, and a copy of the painting is bound into the book. But no matter how long I might stare at the Garden, there’s no way I’d study its detail as closely as in working the puzzle. Two months later, I can picture the birds flying out of a mountain or naked bodies in a pool as soon as Williams mentions them.
Her grandmother posted prints of the side panels, heaven and hell, over her childhood bed. Williams is an adult in the Prado museum in Madrid when she first sees the center panel: earth, play, discovery, sensory experience, body, passion, delight, the fullness of this life beyond good and evil. She returns day after day. She counts the cherries. Museum guards stare as she takes out binoculars and notebook to list every species of bird.
Solving a jigsaw puzzle temporarily changes my perception. Normally more attuned to maps and spatial relationships than to visual detail, for a few days or weeks I notice lines, dots, and spots of light in the world around me. I see gradations of color that I can’t usually distinguish. Poets and naturalists may see this way all the time. To strengthen my writing for sensory detail, I could do worse than to work jigsaw puzzles.
Shakespeare’s audiences only heard the side of the story that made Henry VII a hero and Richard III a villain. They had little access to alternative viewpoints. Today so much is out there that we can’t absorb it all. Picking and choosing, we tend to hear one side as narrowly as Shakespeare’s audiences.
“The past isn’t dead,” William Faulkner wrote. “It isn’t even past.” Competing historical narratives live on in current events: progress versus decay, pride versus shame, self-sufficiency versus interdependence. It’s easy to dismiss one or the other, easy to say there’s right on all sides, but challenging to try to understand a story too complex for sound bites. After the history department at Oberlin College (my alma mater) organized a teach-in about Charlottesville and Confederate memorials, Chair Renee Romano wrote:
“Learning history gives students the knowledge they need to assess claims about the past that routinely circulate in public discourse. A historical education teaches students how to ask critical questions. It prepares them to evaluate competing arguments. And it encourages empathy towards people different from ourselves. These are skills and qualities that the world desperately needs . . .”
[quoted from Oberlin’s “Around the Square” 2018 Spring Newsletter]
Anne’s cat brings laughter to her life. When she suggested a blog post about animals in our lives, I decided to explore how animal companions influence creativity. Friends say their dogs or cats bring laughter and joy, help them relax, and reduce their stress.
Talking to a pet is a practice in creativity. You provide or imagine both sides of the conversation. For those of us without pets, this also works with teddy bears.
Dogs help the mind roam freely by getting their humans out for a walk. Separate studies show that walking (regardless of setting) and natural settings boost creative thought. Cats, on the other hand, support the deep focus our arts require. Muriel Spark writes in A Far Cry from Kensington:
“Alone with the cat in the room where you work . . . the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp. . . . And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost.”
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.