Creativity Lesson: Love
I began writing a bedtime story for my children five years before ever holding my son. The story, or at least one pivotal scene, had come to me in screaming detail when I was a freshman in college. I promptly forget it at first semester’s end. But in 2008, on a rainy commute home from a day of teaching, the blond-haired girl and the brown-haired boy, and the cloaked figures that surrounded them in the home made of bricks, they all stormed back into my brain, and this time they came with demands: write this story. Write it for your children. Now would be good.
Initially, the double thrill of doing something in secret (writing), and something that seemed off limits (writing a book), was the only fuel I needed.
My hidden life of writing was like the film version of the scene in Romeo and Juliet (the one starring Leo, always) at the costume party when the star-crossed lovers keep intentionally brushing past each other and stealing lingering glances, the occasional tortured touch. All fun, and flirt, and carefree.
I didn’t yet know writing was a Montague. It would cost me, scare me, work against me, drive me mad. It would become one of the great loves of my life.
Problems arose about a year into my endeavor. My affections had splintered. I loved writing, yes. But I’d begun to love the idea of being a writer. More specifically, I grew very fond of the idea of myself as a great writer. And here was the strange psychological kink: I’d been writing steadily every day for a decent amount of time and yet I still did not identify myself, publicly or privately, as a writer. But I fantasized about book deals, and film rights, and the general applause that awaited me.
Can there be such a thing as innocent flirting in the middle of a committed love affair? No, as I would learn.
My liaisons with a premature (and unnecessary, and melodramatic, and frankly embarrassing) delusion of greatness, it paralyzed my process. Every sentence was stalked with the question: how can I rework this to make it great? Every page felt forever first draft. Every chapter seemed to mock me with its averageness.
A few exasperating—and fruitless—years passed. Then God brought me up short. Through the words of other pilgrims further along in their journey with the craft, some hard-truth telling from friends, and some bittersweet (emphasis on both bitter and sweet) soul-searching on my own part, I learned the most valuable art lesson of my life:
I have to love writing, the very act of it, more than I love the idea of being loved for doing it. And that will only happen when I believe I am already loved.
I attended a writing conference a few months back. Hands down the best component of the entire three days, was any time writer and literary critic Walter Kirn spoke. I learned so much from him about poetry, storytelling in both fiction and nonfiction, the art of the essay, and the triumphs and trials of the lifelong writer. As I look over my notes from his talks I see quotes like, “The best essays are acts of discovery on the part of the writer,” and “Once you enter Tolkien’s worlds does it feel like fantasy at all?” and (about writing poetry), “You can’t swing a golf club and watch yourself swing a golf club.” I’ll save his chicken in a can analogy for another time. Let me share the thing he said that really rocked me:
“It’s love that drives writing.”
I nearly cried in the old theater where we’d gathered. The truth of his words represented my reckoning of the last decade. It starts with, comes back to, must always be driven by, love.
I want to lay out for you the stepping stones I hopped on (fell on, cracked my head upon) to get to the place where I could write in the freedom of love.
It started with this:
I am loved by God.
I am loved by my husband, and by our family.
I am loved by my friends, even the ones who really know me.
No accomplishment, or lack thereof, will diminish or amplify their love.
In that love, I am free. I am free to create what I love.
I love stories: adventure, some romance, friends on an impossible quest. Dark inner turmoil, Faulkner-esque families, Gone Girl plot twists. I love fiction. I love writing fiction. So, I should write fiction.
Writing fiction is hard because: I don’t have time and I have a full time job and I don’t know how and as soon as I start I am gutted by imposter syndrome.
I am going to want to give up, a lot.
What will keep me going?
What will keep me going is what got me started: my children.
I love them enough to want them to live in a world where good stories wait to be discovered by them. I am loved enough to enter into the work of creating with freedom, and fearlessness.
Now, I can get to work.
Write a love letter. This could be a love letter to your husband, your child, a parent, a friend, your body, a concept, whatever you like.
Write a love story. This could be the story of your first love, your first heartbreak, how you met your husband, how you learned to fall in love with motherhood, etc.
Write a love letter to yourself from anyone. It could be from God, a parent who has passed, your child twenty years from now, your best friend, spouse, ANYONE. Reflect on their love for you, the ways they have expressed that love, and the type of language they would use to encourage you in your artistic endeavors. Aim to write authentically, in their voice, and with the feelings they have for you, even if it feels awkward initially. You know this person loves you. You know they would be (or are currently) thrilled by what you create. This writing exercise is about sitting with the knowledge of that love and support, while flexing our creative muscles in taking on the voice of someone we know.
- Write a book review of the book that has had the biggest impact on your creative life. It could be a novel, a memoir, something nonfiction. It could even be a children’s book. Consider why it means so much to you. Was it the season when you read it? The person who gave it to you? The story itself? Then take an inventory of just how it has affected your creative life. Did it motivate you when you wanted to quit? Did it stir anger in you that fueled your desire to wage war with weaponized art? Did it capture your heart in a way that almost felt like the author somehow knew your innermost thoughts? Once you have a solid grasp on why you love it and how that love changed you, read a few book reviews from reputable news publications or magazines to get a feel for the style. Adopt aspects of the style that feel genuine and throw out anything forced. Then write a review that will lead others to fall in love with the book that won your heart.
As you hop across you own metaphorical stepping stones, I highly recommend you take your first leap while in nature. That may look like a hike to a remote summit. Unless you’re me, in which case, nothing ever looks like hiking to a remote summit. I do some of my best brainstorming in the desert. At sunset. From the comfort of my car with all the windows down and my favorite music way up. Maybe you live near an arboretum or the ocean, or close to a Starbucks with a really nice fountain. We’re not looking for a grand landscape and an epic score. Just fresh air. And also, this is key, give yourself permission to take yourself seriously as you work through these responses. Nothing kills creativity like the eye-rolling editor who resides in all our heads. Tell her/him to take an early lunch.
Use the following phrases to launch a journal entry—feel free to elaborate. See where the love takes you.
I am loved by ...
The freedom I find in this love enables me to create ...
(fearlessly, freely, shamelessly, abundantly, etc)
I love ...
(writing, drawing, photography, etc)
So I should ...
(write, draw, paint)
This will be hard because ...
What will keep me going is ...
I want to live in a world where ...
Want more love-related work? Head over to our Creative Resources page and check out the Heart Mapping exercise!