Creativity for Grown Ups
My kids are into a Netflix show called Brainchild, which tries to demystify or explain common human behaviors and phenomena using a mix of comedy and science in a way kids can learn from and relate to. One episode on germs, for example, explains that there really is no such thing as the “five-second rule” when you drop food on the floor. Another takes on emotions and demonstrates how things like music in a movie can affect how we respond to what we see on screen. My favorite episode is about creativity. It features social experiments, including one in which four artists are asked to create a logo for a freestyle rapper before and then after trying to freestyle rap themselves. They are all hilariously terrible at it, but their artistic efforts after they try freestyling are better because freestyling helped stimulate the parts of the brain where creativity resides. I loved that episode because watching it made me think about my own creativity, which is not something I do often.
If you’re like me, you might think of creativity as the exclusive realm of either children or artists—people who get to make things, who pull patterns and ideas and stories out of thin air and onto a canvas or page for the rest of us to enjoy. More to the point, it is the realm of people who are having more fun than I am. Creativity seems to me like the opposite of work, and work is what much of life feels like much of the time, especially during the last year. Perhaps that’s unfair to those who make their living by their creativity and who would likely disagree that what they do is all fun and games. I can’t help but feel that way, though. There aren’t many opportunities for creativity in my job and even less time for it. Still, I find myself craving creativity. That is, craving the opportunity to feel creative. To reset my brain, to feel my way through a problem instead of thinking through it or to just do something crazy like try to freestyle rap to see if doing so unlocks the box my brain in which my imagination has been trapped and hidden for too long. In truth, we all have creativity and can apply it to good use in any task. We just need to remember it is there and give ourselves permission to use it.
Speaking of creativity, the writer and cultural critic Roxane Gay recently shared a New York Times feature in which 75 artists of various media and inclination were asked questions about how they spent the last year for insight on “the life of a creative mind in quarantine.” Gay posted her answers to the questions on her blog and because I am indulging my creativity at the moment, here are mine:
What’s one thing you made this year?
I made this here blog. One of the things I reassessed through the pandemic was how I spend my time and how I could be more intentional with it. Maybe I’d have gotten around to writing like this again without the last year happening exactly how it did. Or maybe not. Ultimately I wanted to give more of my time to something I enjoyed that also felt substantive. This is obviously a work in progress, but it’s a thing and I made it.
What art have you turned to in this time?
Books have always been my primary comfort, and that didn’t change this year.
Did you have any particularly bad ideas?
There were a couple of baking experiments that ended up in the compost.
What’s a moment from this year you’ll always remember?
The relief I felt when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the presidential election. A lot happened before they were inaugurated and took office—to put it mildly—but that Saturday morning after Election Day was just being awash in a wave of relief like I hadn’t felt in years. As a person of color, an immigrant and a woman, I felt like I could breathe again, like my existence and that of my family mattered again. When I woke up that day, you couldn’t see the grass in our backyard because all the trees had decided to drop all their leaves at once. After the election announcement, my husband and I stepped outside, rakes in hand, and pushed all the leaves into a pile and let the kids jump in. Never had something so simple felt so joyful.
Did you find a friendship that sustained you, artistically?
I read a fair amount of fanfiction this year and in the process corresponded electronically with a handful of authors whose work I enjoyed. I wouldn’t say they are necessarily sustaining friendships, but I was nice to get to know people at a time when social connections of any kind were difficult to nurture. I have found that communicating with people who write, even those who just write for fun, nourishes my creativity as well.
(And, yes, at some point, I’m going to write about what “fanfiction” is, why I love it and why it’s important.)
If you’d known that you’d be isolated for so long, what would you have done differently?
I honestly don’t know that I would have done anything differently. My family is incredibly lucky in that regard. My husband and I are both fairly introverted and had very sparsely populated social calendars even before the pandemic. In fact, months in, I kept thinking that other than dealing with online school for the kids, getting our groceries delivered and not getting to visit the museums I take my daughters to regularly, our lives were not that different in the first few months of the pandemic. I think, if anything, what I would have done differently is I’d have worried less about how we would make it through.
What do you want to achieve before things return to normal?
I want to establish boundaries for my time, so that what I’ve been able to carve out for my family and myself doesn’t fall back into the work/life imbalance that I was trudging through before.
Speaking of things returning to “normal,” I found this Washington Post travel article kind of therapeutic to read. It is essentially just anecdotes from people in the travel industry about how the pandemic affected how people plan travel and the changing approaches to going on dream vacations. Reading about travel feels hopeful right now, especially when people are making that travel meaningful.
And speaking of travel, one of my husband’s favorite places to go is the Pacific Northwest coast, where for years human feet have been randomly washing up on the shores of Washington and British Columbia. This fascinating, uber-nerdy National Geographic piece finally offers some answers. Yeah, science!
The Derek Chauvin trial is over and, for once, one injustice was not met with more injustice. The anxiety about what would happen in that case got me thinking about what I’ve read to try to learn from the leaders of the fight against police brutality. This is among my favorites.
On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope by DeRay Mckesson - This book is part memoir, part activism handbook, part eyewitness account of the protests that happened in Ferguson, Missouri, part treatise on race and justice in the United States. It's also only 220 pages (hardcover edition) so it packs a punch. McKesson emerged out of Ferguson and a young leader in social justice and this book—thoughtful, introspective, forceful in its arguments on the need for true freedom for black Americans but also open-minded and inclusive on how to get there—makes it obvious why. He is smart, certainly, and understands the power of language. Most importantly, he leads with empathy and uses his own experiences to define trauma and how to fight it and overcome it, both individually and as a society. I look forward to seeing how he and the cohort of activists that came out of Ferguson continue to lead our country toward better.
I recently finished this book for middle grade readers about a girl who arrives in the United States from Haiti. Immigration stories for and about kids are rare—or maybe they just feel that way since once upon a time I was one of those kids.
The Year I Flew Away by Marie Arnold - This is a sweet take on the toll that immigration can take on a child. The use of magical realism keeps this rooted in the protagonist's Caribbean roots, even as it stakes a claim for the journey to this country as a uniquely American experience, however different it looks for everyone. Recommend for kids (and grown-ups) looking for themselves in literature about growing up in multiple places as well as for those who still live where they were born.
If you want immigration stories from the Caribbean for grownups, try this one.
How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs - These stories, about Jamaicans in their homeland and the United States and about their journeys between the two places, don’t all land. But the collection is overall lovely and enjoyable to read. The best stories really sparkle, though, and convey that sense of longing and loneliness that the best immigration/diaspora stories do. The very first and the very last were my favorite.
Lastly, while we’re all still dreaming of travel and seeing friends for the first time in months . . .
Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane - This book may have benefited by coming after one I really disliked, but I enjoyed reading it so much, I didn’t feel like talking myself out of the fifth star. This story about a woman in her early forties who has leaned into her solitude after the death of her mother and decides to reconnect with her old friends really hit a sweet spot for me. I, too, wish I could spend more time with the friends I was close with during formative years and often wonder whether I am a good enough friend, what the bounds of friendship are and what our current world has done to reconfigure them in the face of technology and supposed connectedness. What does it mean to enter back into someone’s space long after you stopped inhabiting it regularly. There are so many interesting questions raised here about connection and how women relate to each other and need from each other as their lives evolve. Honestly, this was just a great, comforting read that made me want to visit all my old friends.