chit-chat: on creativity

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.

In-progress embroidery of a small house
I did a quick sketch, working from a photo, and decided it would be fine if the lines are wiggly. I did not trace the sketch, but just drew it freehand on the fabric, a scrap remnant from the bottom of a trimmed Ikea curtain. I’m using only one color of thread, as my primary goal is to improve my stitching and experiment with line. I’m encouraged by seeing that my technique has gotten visibly better as I’ve progressed. (I started with the rooflines, and the latest parts are the door and porch railings.)

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:

Bland kitchen counter and cabinets, with white cabinets and beige countertops, walls, and short tile backsplash.

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):

Same view of kitchen, with dark butcher-block counter tops and colorful tile backsplash that fills wall behind sink.

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.)

In the meantime, knitting dishcloths gives me something almost-mindless to do with my hands in the evenings when I’m too tired for much of anything but watching tv or listening to an audiobook. Currently deep into Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, a novel that is a long meditation on creativity, creative partnership, and story-telling. Highly recommend.)

10 thoughts on “chit-chat: on creativity

  1. Marian says:

    So much to comment on here, Rita. I have to admit that when I read that you were feeling “time scarcity”—despite now having mostly left paid work—I felt almost absurdly grateful. This is how I feel too, and how I’ve felt all through the years since having children—that there is so much that needs to be done and so much I want to get done that I barely have time for all of it. Sometimes I desperately wish I could be one of those people like Twyla Tharp (if only so I would have a succinct answer to give to the question “what do you do?” when meeting someone new), but then I think of the cost (to personal/family health and to the environment) and I know I can’t do it. I’m also an explorer—I think that was the word you used a post or two ago; I’ve also heard the term “multipotentialite”—rather than a specialist, and I think that makes it even harder to pin down what exactly to do with the time I have.

    I love the house you’re embroidering! Like Kate, I loved seeing your house collages when you did them a few years ago. A few months ago I had the impulse to stitch an Amsterdam street scene, with a row of tall houses in monochrome (either black or blue), but I talked myself out of it because the last thing I felt I needed was yet-another creative thing to pull me in yet-another direction. But seeing your house now makes me want to stitch a house too, or a whole row of them. 🙂

    Funnily enough, I started knitting a dishcloth yesterday, my first in a few years. We had a long drive to a university open house, and I can only knit in the car with the biggest and bluntest needles (don’t ask). Garter stitch is wonderfully meditative. My youngest will be off to university next year, and then we’ll once again be immersed in the cycle of out-with-all-the-stuff/in-with-all-the-stuff. I found this very trying when we went through it with our older two and I’m not looking forward to embarking on it once again. (My older two still have quite a lot of stuff here, but at least it’s organized and in its place—which took a lot of effort from me. I have really come to hate “stuff”!)

    Lastly—your kitchen looks so inviting now. That tile is gorgeous, and I love the countertop.

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marian,
      I suspect that you, like me, are never bored–except, perhaps, on long car rides. I wish I could knit in the car, but I’m prone to motion sickness. Truly, audiobooks are such a gift to me, in many ways. I used to wish I could be a specialist and have my one thing and do it really, really well, but I don’t, any more. One of the creative autobiography questions is “What is the dumbest idea you’ve ever had?” and Tharp’s answer was: “Thinking I could have it all.” She explains: “To lead a creative life, you have to sacrifice.” I know it is this about her that puts me off. She may be right, but she seems to assume that creating at her level makes those sacrifices worthwhile. I don’t know that I will ever agree. I’m glad I’ve had the priorities I’ve had, and I feel really fortunate that I feel that way at this stage. I hope you do, too.

      And good luck with the stuff. My daughter has a lot of stuff in what was our spare room, as it’s currently her room. I’ve moved most of my son’s things to the attic. I don’t mind it up there, but the process of gradually boxing up and moving was hard. I think it had to be gradual, though. The day I graduated from college, my dad told me I needed to come get all my things from my childhood bedroom the next day or he was going to give them away. That hurt, and I’ve always remembered it. It felt like a big shove out of the nest. I haven’t wanted to do that to my kids. They don’t yet have real nests of their own–they’re both in states of transition–and I want them to be supported. But, like you, I have come to dislike most “stuff.” Feel like I’ve spent too many resources managing too much stuff for too many years.

  2. Kate says:

    “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.” This whole paragraph spoke to me and makes me so grateful for finding you and the words you share.

    I love the needle work you’re sharing this week. I can’t wait to see how the rain chain turns out and on the embroidery (I LOVE red work) and the color of your dishcloth. It’s so cheerful!!

    • Rita says:

      I like red work, too. (Although it’s actually dark pink. Cuz I’m a rebel like that. Ha!) I was contemplating not finishing it–it’s kind of gotten away from me–but now I will. Because I’m not sure how I’m going to do the rain chain, and I think I’ll be glad if I figure it out.

      As you know, so much of what you share speaks to me, too. Aren’t we lucky? For all the trouble social media has created, I sure am grateful for the ways in which it’s allowed me to connect with my people.

  3. TD says:

    This is the Rita that I grew to love over the years of your journal blogging. Every thought that you shared here is truly you. I understand that transition is truly unknown, scary at times and an opportunity to learn who we are in this present time of life. I’ve kept up with your writing yet decided to be quiet for awhile.

    At the beginning of our introduction with each other you sent me enduring wishes that I would find my voice. This gave me courage to communicate on blogs even if I would not be understood. And I’m still here, reading.

    “(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.

    Kate was right! I’m delighted that you heard and decided to engage! Keep stitching, knitting, and creating love,.

    This is a statement of relaxing into retirement of who we truly are and not of some myth of who we “should be”!

    You are there, Rita! And I’m glad .🙂

    • Rita says:

      Thank you for these kind words, TD. I’ve been wondering if everything is OK with you, and it was good to see your name come through my email. I am in a good place right now, and feeling very grateful to be here. I hope you are, too. I’m glad you’re using your voice. 🙂

  4. Kari says:

    Before I forget, I LOVE YOUR COUNTER TOPS. I’ve been wanting butcher block countertops for a long time. 

    I know how it feels to want to do ALL of the creative things. You’ve seen me do DIY, then paint furniture, then write a screenplay, then write a book, then, then, then… The opposite of a specialist….that is me too.

    Running a household is also a form of self-care for me. When Mike is traveling, I have complete control over the house, which I enjoy. I used to feel guilty saying that, but it’s when I’m able to be the most creative because I have the room to do so. It has nothing to do with him and everything to do with never having my own apartment or adult space. I never thought of this as self-care until reading your post today. ❤️
    Kari recently posted…What I Kept | October 2022My Profile

    • Rita says:

      I also never had my own apartment or adult space–until I moved into this house. Although that was part of a really hard time (the kind I don’t wish on you or anyone), I did enjoy (and grow from) being the complete boss of my own space. I’m glad you’re able to find a way to have that, and I totally get it. I think I’m having some of the same now. Making our home is my new job, and it’s the best one I’ve ever had.

      So far I really like the butcher block counters. We installed them in our last house and used a food-safe beeswax finish on them. Those were a pain to maintain. We’ve put a poly on these (realizing we always use a cutting board, so the more natural finish wasn’t a big benefit). the poly is much easier. I love the warmth of the wood counter. Has changed the whole feel of the kitchen and made me like other elements I used to want to change (like the floors). Big win for relatively little cost/effort.

      I think everyone who reads/comments here may be the opposite of a specialist. 🙂 I think we’re lucky to be that way.

  5. Ally Bean says:

    I don’t know that I agree with the idea that “cautions against being distracted… by other creative interests.” I tend to think that creativity in any part of my life energizes creativity in all parts of my life. Like you, I’m not a specialist.

    I adore your backsplash tiles and counter in your updated kitchen. Very pretty. Will look for Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. I could use some meditative thoughts and a nudge toward being more creative. Been feeling stagnant lately.
    Ally Bean recently posted…Hocus Pocus Tuesday Focus: Five Useful Questions + Five Autumn PhotosMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I agree with you about what energizes creativity. When I feel stuck in a creative endeavor, stopping and doing some other kind of creative thing is just what I need to get unstuck. And some kinds of creative work creates headspace for other creative work.

      I just finished Tomorrow and I miss it. I hope you like it. And thank you for the compliment on the kitchen. We like it, too. I am not looking forward to painting the cabinets (painting cabinets is tedious and it stresses me out), but the tiling was fun because we got such a bang for our buck out of it.

      Good luck on your creative endeavors. I think that feeling of being stagnant is often the first step in new creative work.

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