Coming Home to Creativity
Spring has arrived. Here on the East Coast, it’s time to be gardening. Time to take a break from thinking about national politics, writing historical fiction, and talking about my recently published novel. Time to clean up after the winter. Rip out bushes destroyed by avalanches of falling snow and replace them with small flowering azaleas. Watch tulips and crocuses emerge to face the sun. And then, after avoiding the easel for as long as possible, time to pick up a paintbrush.
I’ve been writing intensely, with little time or energy for anything other than character and story. It’s been two years since I looked at my half-finished paintings, squeezed Titanium White from a tube, mixed it with a little Burnt Umber or Siena, and applied it to a canvas. Just like riding a bike, I told myself. Fall off and get right back on. Muscle memory will kick in. You haven’t forgotten how to hold a brush.
Yes, I have. Forgotten how to mix. Forgotten how to let the hand do its work, each brush stroke made with intention. Remembering with affection one of my creative mentors, Dave Ratner, irritated beyond measure, reminding me in a clipped tone, You’re not painting a wall, for God’s sake!” I knew what I should have been doing, but part of the “should” is letting it happen effortlessly. That’s the hard part. It requires relearning. Then I remembered how it felt when I was able to give myself over to the painting—the freedom, the innate sense of what had to be done, the certainty of which background color would best show off the foreground.
Then suddenly, as I stood before the easel, brush in hand, I realized that I might just as well have been sitting at my computer, fingers poised above the keyboard, frozen into inaction. They were the same.
I talk about how the characters in my novels speak through me; try and explain that I frequently don’t know what they will say until their words take shape on the screen through my fingertips. I joke about channeling them—but it’s no joke. It’s a really serious tool. And like any serious tool, it has to be used with respect. I can’t pick up and use it at will—it is only available to me when I am inside the world of the story—when I leave behind me the need to exert control and give myself to the process.
As in any creative endeavor, you can only let the work take you where it will once you’ve mastered a set of skills. If I’m thinking consciously about sentence structure and grammar, I’m unlikely to be loose enough to lose myself in the story. If the brush in my hand feels awkward and I don’t know how much solvent to add to my oil paint, I’m unlikely to find myself inside the painting. In both cases, I’m stuck on the mechanics.
But in the case of any artistic endeavor, be it written, musical, performance, or visual arts, accessing the creative spirit is similar. It requires relinquishing control, becoming immersed in the work so that it washes over you. Becoming a part of it so that when you look around, you are no longer in the studio or at your computer, but inside the painting looking out, or within the fictional world of your novel, feeling and thinking whatever your characters are feeling and thinking.
I will remember this the next time I return to writing fiction after a hiatus. When I find myself unable to get out of my own head to roll down the embankment into my story, I will recall how lost I felt standing before my blank canvas as if it were the first time, and I will remember what I have to do.
Go back to the easel. Remind myself of the basics until they become second nature again. Release. Relinquish. It will all come back. Quinacridone Violet. Vermillion Hue. Aquamarine. Cerulean Blue. Viridian, that dark shade of spring green. The multiple uses of Raw and Burnt Umber. Pretty soon I’ll be back in the Pink.