“It is very tender and sensitive, and it is usually drummed out of people early in life by criticism (so called ‘helpful criticism’ is often the worst kind), by teasing, jeering, rules, prissy teachers, critics and all those unloving people who forget that the letter killeth and the spirit giveth life.”
This is from the teacher I love the most, Brenda Ueland. I was delighted to encounter it in a comment at Penelope Trunk’s blog. The quote was the entirety of Jennifer James’s response to another commenter who nitpicked a typo in Penelope’s post.
I enjoyed the surprise of recognition, and how it was just right. I like how Jen extracted the kernel of it, omitting the explanation of what “it” is, but let’s look at the words before and after Jen’s excerpt, for a bit more context:
This creative power and imagination is in everyone and so is the need to express it, i.e., to share it with others.
So that’s what “it” is, and then there is the question, “What happens to it?”, which is the part Jen quoted. Brenda continues: “Sometimes I think of life as a process where everybody is discouraging and taking everybody else down a peg or two.”
Which makes me think of Bob Dylan’s:
While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in
They’re both talking about me, of course. I’m a nitpicker. I’m one of the critics and the jeerers. One of the discouragers. The peg taker-downers. Of both myself and others. I like it here in this hole and I’m going to drag you down here with me.
Or maybe you’re already down here with me. Are you a fellow dragger-downer? Are you limiting the creative power, in yourself and others? It’s okay. Let’s forgive ourselves. It’s not so much that we like it here. We stay down in the hole because of fear, another great inhibitor. Brenda covers that also:
But the ardor for it is inhibited and dried up by many things; as I said, by criticism, self-doubt, duty, nervous fear which expresses itself in merely external action like running up and downstairs and scratching items off lists and thinking you are being efficient; by anxiety about making a living, by fear of not excelling.
Oh, god, and how.
I know all about nervous, jittery action. I’m quite fidgety. (And anxious. And fearful.) I have many lists and little things I obsess over and track meticulously.
Those traits are probably helpful to me in my job. I work with computers and software. Nitpicky stuff. But I think it conflicts with my writing aspirations. The kind of advice I get from Brenda and others has a way of turning me away from the habits that (I think) have made me successful in my day job. (Or maybe I’m just getting lazier and dumber. It’s hard to tell.)
I find myself caring less about the technical minutia of my work, and less tolerant of the endless distractions. Is it because that creative power is trying to rise up? Is it part of moving to freedom? (Although working with software can be as creative as any work, of course, but that’s not what this is about.)
So you see the imagination needs moodling,–long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: “I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.” But they have no slow, big ideas. And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.
Oh, man. I’ve felt it. I’m feeling it. The desperation. I have analyzed the $3.47 in my meat budget.
I rarely moodle.
It’s so much easier to indulge the uneasiness and clutch at any available diversion than it is to let your Muse come to you. Brenda wrote her book long before the internet, but I think we can guess how she’d judge the idle wandering we do there:
[...] if it is the idleness which so many people substitute for creative idleness, such as gently feeding into their minds all sorts of printed bilge like detective stories and newspapers, that too is bad and utterly uncreative.
Mmmm…. yummy bilge.
I thought about apologizing for all of these quotes, for hashing over the wisdom of others instead of offering more of my own, but is there anything new under the sun? Brenda quotes all kinds of stuff to make her point, so it must be okay. She even offers her own quote from Plotinus as support for her point about the meat budget:
“So there are men too feeble for contemplation.” (This is his word for what I call the imagination.) “Being unable to raise themselves to contemplation from the weakness of their Soul, unable to behold spiritual reality and fill themselves with it, but desiring to see it, they are driven to action that they may see that which they could not see with the spiritual eye.”
And so, yet again, I’m going to commit to this writing, and moving to freedom. Creative freedom, spiritual freedom, or… whatever.
Always I despair of being able to use my creative power in the ways I dream about, and I cast around for what else I might do. What will make money to support me and my family? But I think I have to finally accept that it is the writing that I have to do. I want to believe it.
I’m so afraid of the risk and uncertainty in this, of letting down my family, of subjecting my daughter to “less.” Less than I’ve had, less than she is used to, and at worst, less than she needs. But maybe I’ll show her a better way to live; better than growing up and submitting to society’s pliers.