After seeing Sarah Kain Gutowski share Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life on Instagram, I decided to check the book out from the library. It’s a read I am digesting in small bites, in part because it makes me uncomfortable–but also because it’s the kind of book that is going to be most helpful if I give myself time for the ideas to marinate. I chafe against some of Tharp’s words; it is because she is so intense and absolute at times. For example, about the dancers she works with–who can be divided into two categories, “acceptable (great) or not (everything less than great)”–she looks for evidence that their work habits are as “exacting” as her own:
“Do they show up on time for rehearsal? Are they warmed up? Does their energy flag when rehearsals break down or are they committed to pushing forward? Are they bringing ideas to the party or waiting for me to provide everything? These are my personal pop quizzes to gauge other people’s involvement. I don’t want them merely involved. I’m looking for insane commitment.”
The (perhaps) insane commitment of artists came up in a conversation with a writer friend this week, who is reading Patti Smith’s National Book Award winning Just Kids (2010), about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe in the late 1960s, when they were young and poor in New York, before either was known or had known artistic success.
“She gave up just about everything for her art,” my friend said. I asked what she meant by that, and she talked about Smith going to New York with nothing, by herself, and living with insecure housing and food.
“I’ve never done that,” I said. “And I never will.” My friend agreed that the same is true for her, which might have something to do with why neither of us has been or will be (as it’s really too late for both of us) a Twyla Tharp or Patti Smith.
I’ve come to realize that I am perfectly fine with not being that kind of creative. Tharp seems to believe we all have one, true creative calling (our “creative DNA”) and cautions against being distracted from it by other creative interests. If there is such a thing as creative DNA, mine is to be the opposite of a specialist. Tharp has a creative autobiography exercise, and the answers to mine are all over the creative map. Hers (because she shares it with readers) is not. I assume my creative DNA is why, although I have a kind of time for creative work now that I haven’t had since early adolescence, I’ve felt a bit creatively paralyzed. There are so many things I want to do–write (poems, essays, blog posts, hybrid forms)! sew! embroider! knit! collage! blog! cook!–that I have been doing (almost) none of them. I’ve been feeling time scarcity, even though I have a kind of time I could only dream of even six months ago.
True self-care takes more time than I ever realized, which includes running the household in healthier ways than I’ve been able to manage before. Also, I feel the clock of my mortality tick-tick-ticking. I know it’s ridiculous and futile and counter-productive to fixate on that (so I don’t), but time does feel finite in ways it never did when I was younger. How best to spend the minutes I have, knowing what I know about creative processes and resources necessary to develop new skills? Namely, time for repetition and failure. It is so challenging to get through the stage where your taste far exceeds your skill, especially when you’re a recovering perfectionist.
Tharp would have no patience with any of these thoughts/feelings. In response to a common fear that our work will never be as good as the vision in our minds, she offers: “Toughen up. Leon Battista Alberti, a fifteenth century architectural theorist, said, ‘Errors accumulate in the sketch and compound in the model.’ But better an imperfect dome in Florence than cathedrals in the clouds.” I think I will credit her (as well as Kate, through a recent encouraging comment) with my decision this week to revisit an old impulse to honor/recreate modest homes and just start stitching.
I’m not sure of how to best use my minutes, but I’ve been spending a lot of those available to me lately on getting our house in order. Literally. In the last 18 months, my son moved in and (sort of) out, Cane moved in, my daughter moved in, and our beloved (and surprisingly space-hogging) Daisy moved on. My son isn’t living with us anymore, but some of his stuff still is. There’s been a lot of transition and purging and shuffling of things and changing the purpose of rooms/closets. I’ve become a fairly minimal person, but our house is only about 1,100 square feet and it is accommodating the “stuff” needs of several adults.
I’ve long been a fan of productive procrastination, and I’ve decided that my organizing/house projects are that. Or, they are simply necessary to making space for creation. I waste so much time looking for things, and I can no longer afford to buy things we already have simply because I can’t find them. I mean, maybe I can–but I really don’t want to. It’s wasteful in multiple ways. Physical clutter and disorganization truly bother me, and I don’t do my best work when distracted by it.
So, while I’m avoiding making any real decisions/commitments about creative work, I’ve been thinking deeply about what we need and how we live and what makes sense for us now and how to best use our home. I’ve donated several carloads of stuff, and for the first time since we sold Cane’s house and moved his things here, the garage is clear. (Or, it was, for about half a week. Then the rain came and we moved the outdoor furniture into that space.)
For kitchen organization, I’m still finding the Adachi book I referenced a few posts back very helpful. The equipment guide from What Good Cooks Know (America’s Test Kitchen) is also helping me think through what we really need. Our kitchen space is tight, and we’re determined to make it work without costly renovations. Two weeks ago we found an old free-standing pine cabinet that cost significantly less than similarly-sized pantry cabinets at Home Depot, and the combination of adding that to our storage and paring down our kitchen things is changing my life in the kitchen. It’s allowing us to have more space for the things we’re keeping, which means that extracting a particular bowl or pan is no longer like playing a game of kitchen-cabinet Jenga. It’s calming, and I’m cooking more often than I used to.
Our kitchen projects aren’t only about function, although they are the primary driver. Our laminate counters had become stained and our cabinets are getting pretty chippy, so we’ve been making some aesthetic as well as functional changes.
Here’s what the kitchen looked like when I bought the house:
Perfectly functional, but blah as blah can be. This is how it is looking now (still in progress; we need to paint the cabinets and finish tiling on the wall you can see on the left side, around the stove):
The danger with any productive procrastination activity is that it becomes a way to forever-avoid some larger task, and I know it could be possible to organize/tinker with this house in perpetuity. But that’s honestly not what this feels like. It feels like clearing a lot of psychic and emotional clutter, as well as physical. It’s its own kind of creative task, and it all goes in the mix. I don’t know yet if any poems or other written works will come out of it, but I like to think they will. (I’ll be OK with it if they don’t.)