Creativity Will Surprise You

Sometimes it’s hiding in the down times

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

Along with my fair skin, my thick hair and my big mouth, my foremothers passed on a vulnerability to the darkness. Genuinely funny and engaging women, they knew times of sorrow that shut them down and paralyzed their many gifts.

My great- grandmother: strange woman makes magic

My great-grandmother was basically a strange woman, with odd ideas. She was a real character who could tell horrifying stories that could keep a young girl awake for nights at a time. She also dipped into periods of depression. which silenced her. During one of those times, she automatically picked up scraps of fabric and thread, buttons and hooks. And she started to make things — bags, dolls, framed scenes.

They were wildly imaginative, made with nothing, and would qualify these days as excellent examples of folk art. Her sadness called out her creativity. Her art was her companion through hardship, but stuck around long after and became a huge part of who she was.

My grandmother: terminally bummed out, except at the easel

Her daughter, my grandmother, picked up a paintbrush and never put it down. Her life was one of more adversity than joy, and she learned early that making something was her vocation and her salvation. Interestingly, her paintings burst through with color and flowers and landscapes and oceans.

My mother: paint was the best medicine

When my mother was 8 months pregnant with her sixth child, she was as down as I’d ever seen her. My FBI agent father had just announced another transfer, which meant my mother had to leave her beloved friends, sell the house, pack it up and move us all.

Normally, she was the most upbeat person I’d known. Then, she just sat at my Grandmother’s table, looking out at the ocean for hours, allowing us to run ragged all over the place.

My grandmother had enough. She set up two easels facing the sea. She literally shoved a paintbrush into my mother’s hand and commanded, “Paint!” My mother just stared at her. If this expression was around then, she would have said, “Yeah, right.” But she couldn’t move my Grandmother.

Finally she rubbed some paint with her brush and slapped it on the canvas. I’d never had a front seat to the moment someone falls in love. In the space of five minutes, my mother became an artist. Just like that. The first things that were moved into our new house were her painting supplies.

Throughout my life, I have had a melancholy thread that culminates every so often in a full fledged depression. I was a facts and figures kind of kid. I hated crayons.

Me: Scraps of words, a patchwork of sorrow

As I got older, my mother reminded me of my artistic lineage, wondering what expression mine would take. This time, “Yeah, right.” was just the right thing to say.

Especially during my depressions, she tried paint, and clay, and fabric and yarn. Forget it. But once, as I became very depressed, I found myself scribbling on a year’s worth of grocery receipts and note paper, the depth of my private suffering.

I wasn’t aware I was even “writing.” But when I came through it, I took those words and made a “patchwork” quilt of sorts. All those papers. They made a story. My story. I cleaned them up, and sold them for a lot of money to a major publisher. My fingers have the grooves of pens, markers, crayons and pens.

I have to write. It is who I am.

During this co-vid mess, I have tried watercolors. I SUCKED. And it made no difference. It transported me to some other place. It captivated my attention. The act of creating is the most life-affirming thing I know.

Celebrating ourselves

When the poet Walt Whitman said, “I celebrate myself,” it feels true when I take nothing and make something. We have stupid restrictive ideas about what qualifies as art. I think of it as making something, anything that emerges from you, that no one else would do in the same way.

We have these wells inside us. They may not have been tapped yet. Until we do we wont have a full picture of who we are and how far this unknown us can stretch.

As someone who ranges from pretty good to pitiful in making something out of nothing, I have a few getting started suggestions. I offer them to you as “second best.” So far, my own daughter looks at me like she’d rather shovel manure than do anything remotely creative.

What do you have to lose?

  • Drop the words “art” or “artist.” Unless someone confers some great honor on you, it’s just a pressure that will shut you down. You might as well chuck “good” and “bad.”
  • Think about “making something out of nothing,” You can’t fail. You haven’t lost anything.
  • Forget everything you learned that had rules associated with it. Color outside the lines. Don’t follow the dots. Put together shapes and lines and hues that don’t go together.
  • Learn the basics to get started and then have at it. Only consult instructions when you want.
  • Lose yourself. As the Trappist monk and poet, Thomas Merton advised, “We must forget ourselves on purpose.” That’s when happens when we let go enough to let other parts of ourselves arise.
  • Just like the first love of your life wasn’t the one you ended up with, let yourself be unfaithful. Fool around. Abandon what you don’t like.
  • In the words of the Talking Heads, “Stop Making Sense.” Making sense helps us in so many areas of our lives. Making something will open the door to discovery of a deep pleasure, that is a part of us, whether we choose to discover it or not.
  • And in the hard times, the challenging times, when words and explanations do little, taking a trip to the less familiar parts of ourselves can lessen our sorrow and expand our joy.

Martha Manning, Ph.D is a writer and clinical psychologist, whose memoir, Undercurrents deals with her severe depression. Like heavy stuff with lots of humor.

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