creativity

The Magic Returns

Image licensed by Shutterstock.

He sits in a cold, dark corner, alone and afraid. It’s been too long, he thinks. He’s like an ancient, dried out riverbed, where the magic hasn’t flowed for ages. What makes him think he can summon it now?

Once, he was capable of great things. Through his unique talent, entire worlds emerged from nothing, whatever the heart and mind could conceive. He took it for granted, thinking it would always be there to serve him.

But he was soon swept up by worldly concerns. He stopped using the magic, stopped creating, and though the fire inside never stopped burning, it grew small and ashen through a chronic lack of practice. He was too busy with work, he told himself, too busy trying to feed his family, too busy doing a hundred other things. Only later, when it seemed too late, did he realize those were excuses, that he could have retreated to his study for as little as five minutes at a time, because there were always pockets of time to be found if only one was dedicated enough to search for them.

He hasn’t created for so long now that the channels through which the magic once flowed have closed up. It’s too late, he thinks. Only the fire inside still burns, no longer just a pile of dying embers as they’d been for so many years, but a raging inferno.

He sits at his old desk because he doesn’t know what else to do.

“Is this what you want?” he whispers to nobody in particular, “To mock me? To remind me that I gave up?” Mad with grief, he hardly knows what he’s saying.

Anguish reaches a climax. He feels small and helpless, like an ant caught up in a sandstorm. There’s nothing to lose anymore, only an ache that will grow deeper and fuller the longer he stays away.

He reaches into the void and at long last does the only thing he’s ever known how to do.

He closes his eyes and opens himself to the magic.

At first, nothing comes. In a moment of despair, he’s certain his worst fears have been confirmed. But then he hears it building as if from a great distance, and the shriveled conduits in his mind quiver with anticipation. The dam breaks, and the dried up riverbed floods once more, a raging rapid of pent up magic he thought forever inaccessible.

He doesn’t know how long he’s been sitting in the dark before the colossal torrent finally ebbs. When he comes back to himself, he stares at his latest creation, mute and disbelieving.

At last, a work of art he can call his own.

Tears blur his vision as he realizes the truth, that the magic never left him. He turned his back on it for a while, but it was always there, waiting for him to embrace it. Like a guiding star, it reorients him. Old priorities wither before a renewed sense of purpose.

For the first time in decades, he can call himself an artist.

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Creator of Worlds

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I see it, glimmering beneath the surface of the universe in an unformed realm that precedes creation. It is primordial, a complex composition of ageless utterances transcending language, space and time. I hunch over a stack of paper with my pen in hand, ready to surround it with a net of words. They are crude in their expressive power, yet capable enough to capture its essence, trap its soul so I can slowly reel it in, a whole new world, young and still crackling with wild newborn magic.

I am thought of by most as a creator of worlds. But I am only a lowly fisherman, trawling an insubstantial ocean in search of worlds half glimpsed, eternal mysteries even to the likes of me. I make my modest living on the few small worlds I’m strong enough to catch. I glimpse larger ones, great hulking cosmos buried deep beneath the depths. But even as I reach for them I know that I am too weak, that my net is too shallow to ever catch them.

That is perhaps the most frustrating part of what I do, to spy so many nascent worlds flitting through the ether that will forever remain unexpressed, doomed to an everlasting half-life in the shadow of non-existence. I weep for them, but there is nothing I can do.

I turn away from such thoughts to gaze at my latest acquisition. It is beautiful, resplendent. I love it like a newborn child.

Then I catch another glimmer.

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Steady As She Goes

“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Ludolf Backhuysen, 1695.

Writing and I have had a tumultuous relationship, and throughout the course of our affair, I’ve had the tendency to oscillate between emotional extremes. One moment, I’ll obsess over something I’ve just written, convinced in the most private chambers of my heart that I’m the next William Shakespeare. The next, I’ll regard whatever project I happen to be working on with contempt, convinced I’m nothing but a fraud, that it’s only a matter of time before the world sees me for the hack I truly am and it’s all over.

It turns out that many writers, as well as artists of every other discipline, exhibit this curious emotional duality. We love our projects, our children of the mind, with all of their many quirks and imperfections, and for a time we have eyes only for their potential. But then we scrutinize them more closely, become increasingly sensitive to their flaws, magnified so that they blot out everything else, and soon we wonder how we could have ever considered our work “good.”

Either extreme left unchecked will wreak havoc on an artist’s creative aspirations, and could even shipwreck them altogether. Excess pride leads toward stagnation and a refusal to acknowledge thoughtful criticism, for how can one perfect something if, in their eyes, it’s already perfect? On the opposite end of the spectrum, excess despair leaves one feeling as if there’s no point, that they might as well give up while they’re still ahead.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that emotions are fickle, that there’s no logical reason for why one moment you should feel one thing and the next something else entirely. Amidst the billowing gale of conflicting desires, passions and the ever-shifting perceptions of my artistic value, I’ve realized that in the end, how I feel is really rather pointless. All that matters is whether or not I write.

When I’m feeling haughty, high and mighty, I acknowledge the emotion, set it aside and continue writing. When I’m feeling dejected, depressed and full of despair, I acknowledge the emotion, set it aside and continue writing. I write, I write and I write. I write through the good feelings. I write through the bad. The willful choice to act regardless of this transient passion or that becomes a moderating force, a lighthouse that illumines the way forward in a dark and unstable sea. I have no control over how I feel. But I do have control over how I act in spite of how I feel.

If you’re an artist of any stripe, do what you love to do. Do you believe that you’re invincible, that you and the vision you carry around inside your head have the capacity to transform the world? Recognize the feeling, let it go and make art. Do you believe that you’re a hack, that you have nothing of value to share with the world and that you might as well not even try? Recognize the feeling, let it go and make art.

Emotions will come and emotions will go. Like the explosive gusts of a hurricane or a typhoon, they’ll buffet you from every side, threaten to bowl you over where you stand. Fine. Let them come. Do what you love to do anyway. Stand your ground.

Do what you were made to do, always do what you were made to do, and even in the midst of chaos, you’ll find peace.

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