by Corey Mesler
I have been asked, from time to time, to say a little something about creativity, or more specifically, how I create as a writer of prose and poetry. I would like to throw some quotes about creativity at you because, for one thing, all artists, writers, etc. stand on the shoulders of those who have come before and, secondly, it makes me sound smart to quote someone smarter.
“If you have real talent–which means that you are enough in love with the world to describe it and respond to it–then the most crucial element in your life is energy.” ~ Frederick Busch, in interview
Now, as I attempt to say something about the shadowy part of the human being from whence art comes, I hope you will keep in mind that all theories about how this works are at least partly bushwa. Talking about creativity is talking about that part of the mind that doesn’t do equations or start the lawnmower or drive a nail, though one can be creative doing all those things. John Fowles said, “If I had to prescribe a future type for humankind, the writer (reflective of ego) and natural historian (seeking beyond it) would rank high above the technologist and computeromane.”
Talking about creativity is talking about where art comes from and it’s a sticky wicket. Centuries untold and volumes written about it but it still remains a bit of a mystery, an ambiguity, a question about a question. It is like trying to pin a drop of mercury to a dartboard.
You hear the old cliché, the question writers (or maybe all artists) roll their eyes at: where do you get your ideas? Well I am gonna answer that as if someone asked me and I didn’t roll my eyes: I get many ideas from reading other writers. I don’t know if other writers feel this way. And I don’t know if it makes me not very original. But, reading my contemporaries and marveling at the varied and recondite ways they express themselves makes me want to create, too, makes me want to be part of that clan. I am frequently completely baffled by what other writers do and most often completely delighted by being baffled. It allows me to admire both writers who write very differently than I write and writers with whom I share at least a small bit of the same kind of ingenuity.
When I sit down in front of the keyboard I rarely know if it’s gonna be a good day writing or a bad day. How does one know in advance? Even those poems that come to me in the bathtub and I have to repeat them to myself like a pretty girl’s phone number, over and over, until I can get out of the tub and dry myself and get a pad of paper are just as often the start of nothing as the start of something. Sometimes the piece of string I grasp finds a flying kite on the end of it and sometimes an unraveling sweater. Yet, I do it. Every day. I sit down every day and try. This is what Frederick Busch meant about having the energy to do it.
“Do I believe in God? Yes, when I work…” ~ Henri Matisse, from Jazz
I do know this: I always think the thing I am working on is the best thing I’ve ever written. Somehow I think the secret lies in that faith, and it really is faith, faith like the lushest of convictions. And the planning stage and the post-partum stage are nothing compared to the creation itself, whether a few days on a poem, a few weeks on a short story, or, my favorite, a couple years on a novel, when the writing itself is flowing, I feel like a god. A minor god, but a god. Forgive me for putting it this way. I do feel at my best, as a writer, when I am working on a novel because it takes a year or two. It’s purchasing the future, if that’s not putting it too grandly.
“I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, ‘The Beatles did’.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut, from Timequake
Now, to me, here is a key element of creativity. Joy. Add some joy to the world. I know there are artists of the dark corners—I’ve explored a few myself—and some of them are frankly too disturbing for me. I don’t like harsh anymore. I used to when I was younger. I had a higher tolerance for street novels, for junkies and rough talk and bleak, dispiriting characters. I don’t so much anymore. But I think the joy Vonnegut is talking about is the joy of creation, the joy of observing the world carefully and writing about it in such a way as to bring things into focus that perhaps were unfocused or even frightening. Writing, to me, is a way of making love with the world, of romancing it. If I approach it that way there is great delight in the process, no matter the subject. So, one can write even about junkies and suicide and terrorism, and still add positive energy to the world. How? By being a truly gifted artist. I make no claims for myself in this realm. But the writers I love most do it, like Kurt Vonnegut, like the Beatles.
And I would like to close with a quote from James P. Carse, whose book, Breakfast at the Victory, had a lot of pithy things to say about life and living and creativity and art. In other words, about Story with a capital S, the story of us all, how we got here, what we are doing here, how we can do it better together than separately and how important it is to pay attention. If I had to hone it down to one epigrammatic phrase I would say creativity starts with paying attention.
“To ask where stories or babies come from is like asking where springs come from…At the deepest level of any memorable story is the haunting presence of another story or maybe even many other stories.” ~ James P. Carse, from Breakfast at the Victory
Corey Mesler has published in numerous anthologies and journals including Poetry, Gargoyle, Good Poems American Places, and Esquire/Narrative. He has published 8 novels, 4 short story collections, numerous chapbooks, and 4 full-length poetry collections. His new novel, Memphis Movie, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press. He’s been nominated for many Pushcarts, and 2 of his poems were chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife, he runs a bookstore in Memphis.
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