I have to say more about the speech I gave to Sigma Tau Delta honorary society a few weeks ago. I didn’t have much time to prepare that speech, so I just spoke what was alive in me at the moment. And these days, I’m all over the topic of creativity–how to find it, use it, hone it to good purposes. I was anxious because this topic does not fit the genre of “speech-giving to students.” Previous speakers gave fairly academic talks, speaking of the value of literature, the importance of the liberal arts, making yet another case, as I find English teachers always do, for why the study of English is valuable in the 21st century. All good and important things to say, for sure.
But I knew, on some level, anyway, that I was doing something very different. I knew I could talk to a smart group of English majors about one thing only: the state of their creative lives. I would go out on the skinny branches and say something very specific about how I think they should conduct themselves–not just for the sake of their own spiritual and creative lives, but for the sake of the world, which desperately needs people who tend to their souls, which is what you do when you’re being creative. In essence, I knew I would finally come out of the closet.
The academic closet, that is. In fact, it has been clear to me for a long time that I am no academic. I don’t do research anymore, and I don’t write books anymore. I still read, of course, and I still write, of course, but not about the themes and issues of literature.
So what have I been doing all these years? Who am I if I’m not an academic? I have become, slowly, almost imperceptibly at times, a creative technician of the soul. A what? Yes, a creative technician of the soul. A person interested in the big questions of life and the myriad ways by which we can explore, probe, claim, and answer those questions. A person who is more interested in the transformation of a spirit than the performance of a scholar. This might be speaking blasphemy, and I am sad to say that for a long time that fear has kept me closeted. Or at least relegated to the safety of my own idiosyncratic classroom where I have a group of students brave enough and willing enough to explore the big questions with me.
I chose this platform, a group of high achieving English majors and their parents, to speak the truth I have come to know only too late in my life, in the hopes that speaking this truth to them would allow them decades of productive, positive, enlightened living and working.
This speech is, of course, only an outline, a shorthand version of key notions I’ve been studying and practicing and teaching for years. To many of my students, especially those in my creative writing classes, these practices will sound very familiar. They are ideas that naturally apply themselves into the teaching of writing. Many people see any type of creativity as a talent you are either lucky enough to be blessed with or not–a gift mysteriously granted or withheld by a volatile muse.
I have come to understand that this is not only not true about creativity, but it is a disheartening, even defeating notion. Why try to be creative if you didn’t get the thumbs up from God? And further, I am dedicated to sharing with others the very habits and attitudes that can actually help us train up our creative selves.
In the next phase of my teaching life, I will attempt to unpack each of these six techniques for those who have asked me to say more about these practices, what they mean, and how they can be appropriated by anyone, not just someone lucky enough to be touched by the muse. And, I’ll address how to incorporate them into a life that’s already full with responsibilities and duties and obligations.
My experience shows me how easy it is to become overwhelmed: Work, families, households, civic activities all claim a piece of our time. And whether we ignore those claims, or over deliver on those claims, we’re all still affected at the soul level by the expectations of a world that says be smart, be on it, be under control, be successful, get it done. Those subliminal messages keep us pretty hepped up, in one form or another. And too often, the way we choose to respond to those messages can wear us out, or worse, do us outright harm–at the soul level if not at the physical level. We do harm to the quiet, fragile creative spirit that wants to come out of the basement and live happily with the rest of the family, to be accepted as a full member of the community, and to be fed and loved and cultivated the way other parts of our being are.
How do we coax it out and help it thrive are the questions many of us struggle with. And this is the very question that my work is all about. A technician of the soul finds both the artfulness and the skillfulness (techne) it takes to hone up our creative spirit.
In the months to come, I hope to offer you ways of changing habits and attitudes that support the emergence and flourishing of your creative spirit. I want to share what I’ve learned from studying the creative masters, as well as from watching my own awkward steps toward creative living. I hope that, together, we can all learn to integrate more fully the skills of living responsibly with the joys of flourishing creatively–the dedicated worker bee with the joy-seeking lightning bug.