Kiini
Ibura
Salaam

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Vol. 65, Following Your Ideas

Posted on 16 May 2009


As human beings, we do a lot of damage to ourselves. Sometimes the most heinous damage we do to ourselves may seem the most benign. It is impossible to tell the toll of those voices—those internal voices that we have running through our minds on continuous loop—the voices that say we aren’t good enough, funny enough, or stylish enough; smart enough, thin enough, or hip enough. The voices that we allow to talk us out of being proud of ourselves, or speaking up for ourselves; the voices that we allow to disparage our own efforts, dissuade us from taking risks, or befriending a stranger, or following up on an idea. (These voices also lead to violence and dangerous acts against others.)

One of the most essential commitments an artist (or any person at all—for even those of us who aren’t artists are creators) can make is the commitment to follow their ideas. Creativity is a force—a force that pounds through some, thrums through others, yet calls to us all. There are as many different modes of creative expression as there are species of life forms. We create in the arenas of the home arts, relationships, construction, administration, systems solutions, parenting, education, and of course on the canvas, page, or stage. Creativity is a self-fulfilling font—when we use it, it is renewed; when we honor our ideas and realize them, we are gifted with more ideas.

Yet even with the embarrassment of riches that is the creative impulse, artists still hide from our ideas. We do this in many ways. We can speak ill of ourselves and our ideas thereby killing our creativity. We sublimate the magnificence of our brilliance to the ravenous appetites of negativity. We judge our ideas before we even bring them to life. We stop midway through the creation of something because it isn’t coming out the way we thought it would. We refuse to follow our creativity into unchartered waters, preferring instead that our art flowers predictably perfect rather than disruptively messy or unconventionally divergent.

What if we were to think of our creative impulses in the same way that Khalil Gibran speaks of children in The Prophet. Gibran writes:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, they belong not to you.

So many of us believe that we are the source of our creativity. Therefore our genius is born of us, we receive precious sparks of creativity because we are good artists. Under this belief system, it follows that when we fail to bring our thoughts to fruition it is because we are bad artists. As we walk, we-centrically through the world, we both blame and pride ourselves for all that we do. But what if, instead of creativity being born of us, it is something that comes through us? What if, in judging our creative output, we are not criticizing ourselves, but the great creative life force that nourishes humanity along with air and water.

Some artists believe that the art literally passes through them. In a TED talk at one of the annual Technology, Entertainment, Design conferences, author Elizabeth Gilbert talks about a conversation she had with American poet Ruth Stone. Now in her 90s, Ruth Stone has been a poet all her life. In Gilbert’s words, Ruth Stone recalled that:

When she was growing up in rural Virginia, she’d be working in the fields and she could feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. It would feel like a thunderous train of air, barreling down at her and shaking the earth under her feet. She would stop working and run like hell to the house to get to a piece of paper fast enough so that when it thundered through her she could write it down. If she didn’t get to the paper fast enough, it would barrel through her and go looking for a poet to capture it.

It may be the rare artist who has this visceral an experience to the arrival of a creative impulse or a creative moment, but all of us—I think—have felt that thing arrive, that spirit, that quickness, that flow of creative power alight within us as we create something new in the world. We can claim that it is of us, but being in its presence we know it’s more apt to say that it is coming through us. It is spirit, a spirit that arrives during the communion between your effort and the clearing of creative space that you create.

Literally the only difference between creating art and not creating art is the artist’s decision to sit down and allow the work to come. We talk of writer’s block and dry spells, but often it is the artist herself who is blocking the arrival of the creative spirit. Why? For many reasons. You block because when you let the spirit in, it creates mirth and you want to be hip and profound. You block because the spirit moves you to make crochet doilies when you want to make leather bags. You block because you hate your artist voice (it’s too shallow, or too silly, or reveals too much, or too little). Or in my case, you block because you want to write fiction and be a serious(ly revered) novelist rather than write three-page theories about art-making.

There is always something to create if we allow ourselves—without judgment, reservation, or expectation—to be vessels for/of creativity. An artist is a clearing, a space for ideas to be born. When we resist our ideas, we are turning away from the creative spirit. We can’t dictate the content of our artistic output for we have less control over the nature our art than we like to think. The creative impulse has its own life—honor it. Be a fertile ground for creativity. Don’t focus on making the right choices, or mounds of money, or being an artistic genius. The creative act is in and of itself genius. For the secret is this: the act of realizing our ideas is what allows us to mature as artists. It is not a waiting game. Artists grow by making art. Rather than wait for the most brilliant idea, dive in. When you listen to your ideas and honor your impulses, you become a larger and more profound clearing for creativity to come thundering through.

Be well. Be love(d).

Kiini Ibura Salaam