By Martha Reed
Since I’m deep in my new novel, and the parts are humming nicely, I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the actual creative process, and where the originating creative source comes from. Readers ask me: “Where do you get this stuff?” and I have to reply that it’s always already there. As I construct each chapter, the next chapter is already gelling one step ahead. I’ve learned to trust that the next lovely little bit will be ready for me when I get there, waiting at the station, right on time.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King proposed his theory on the origin of creativity: “… stories are found things, like fossils in the ground…Stories are relics, part of a pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.” This has been my experience, too.
The hardest part of living an artistic path is learning to trust it. Creative living is a faith-based process, and sadly this world tends to crush our faith out of us. But there is an active rebel alliance, like my Canadian friend the potter who runs a family friendly inn as a day job and started potting a few years back. This year, when we went to visit, she guided us down a narrow twisting staircase into a corner of her dark basement and announced, her face bright with pride: ‘Look! I have a studio!” and guess what? She does. It’s small, but it’s hers, and there it is: an active rebel base in Thorold, Ontario.
I also stopped by a painter’s studio way up in the north woods, and I was amazed at how this talented woman expressed such depth of emotion and harmony using abstract splashes of raw color. We talked for a good hour, and I asked: How do you get started on these? And she said: I just do. And when do you know when you’re finished? She smiled: I just am.
I guess the difference is in how you use the tense: passive future = to be, active current = just am. Personally, I’ve decided that I’m not going ‘to be’ an artist anymore, as of right now, I am. So where do you stand? And what will it take to get you to move from the passive future to the active present?
No one really talks about the benefits of living an artistic life, but I will. The part that brings me the most joy is the liberation I feel knowing I have learned to move my ego out of the way and get on with the actual work. And the more I labor at this idea, the better I realize that this is a path to happiness: work as service to a greater – artistic – whole. Talk about community! My artistic community goes back to the first human who picked up a shiny pebble or who painted their handprint in red against a cave wall. All the rest of it, the ten thousand years of buzzing humanity in its endless permutations, is simply a modern distraction.
And it is writing that taught me how to move my ego out of the way, because if I foolishly try to force my organic manuscript the way I want it to go, the storyline dries up under my feet like a dead river. I can tell it’s going wrong when my characters stop talking. Maybe this is what writer’s block is: when you try to force your characters against their grain down the wrong path. I can push my characters a tiny bit, interjecting a sentence here and there, but if I try too hard the story simply stops. Just like that. Instead, I’ve learned to go with the flow, to go with the story. When you flow with the story (or throw a pot, or paint a canvas), you are acting as an active instrument of the creative source, and great things will follow.
Think of it like this: you are a passenger on a train. You are not the engineer. You are not in charge of driving anything but you can ride along feeling secure that the train is running solidly on both tracks and that it will – eventually – get you where you’re supposed to go. The fun is in what you learn along the way, not in reaching your destination, and it’s the people that you meet and love, and the artistic expressions that you create (out of no-thing), that add the meaning to your ride.