The Pleasure Of... Creativity

Retreat to move forward.

A clunky word, further hollowed out these days by its adoption by every startup transforming the world by selling boxes of makeup on the internet, but nevertheless you know what I mean: the pleasure of putting a little gentle pressure on your ideas, seeing what shapes they’ll make if you prod and bend and stretch them. I should know better than to argue with the New York Times Style Section, but my thinking on this was prompted by a muddle-headed article attempting to dunk on the current vogue for “creativity workshops”/retreats/whatevers led and embraced primarily by women. The established female authors who lead these—Elizabeth Gilbert, Dani Shapiro, Meghan Daum—come in for a tall-poppy scything despite the fact that the writer could only, it seems, find satisfied customers, who had seen concrete results, in the form of publication and career advancement, after taking one of these workshops. Surely it shouldn’t have been hard to find someone willing to say their thousand bucks were wasted? Or perhaps what the writer is chafing against is the fact that measurable outcomes aren’t really the point of these events: aspiring writers know that they still have to do the work, and that writing does happen alone and often in pain. But the community, inspiration, solidarity, refreshment of an event like this is nice, if you can afford it, and if—like many people!—your friends and colleagues aren’t writers.

I took a writing workshop a couple years ago, right as I was transitioning back into full-time freelancing, with Ann Friedman and Jade Chang, over the course of a weekend. It cost $500 and I agonized over it, but I could afford it, just about, and not only did I meet a bunch of smart women I’m still in touch with, I refer back to its lessons a lot. To me, it was absolutely worth it. I’m sensitive about this because I’ve just started teaching a six-week writing workshop myself, on cultural criticism, i.e. asking strangers to pay for my expertise. Those strangers are very different from the mostly reluctant freshmen I’m used to, smart and motivated and experienced (and yes, all female.) The actually interesting article might be to examine if (and why) female-identifying people are more willing to pay for an experience rather than a credential, more open to an experience that offers community and creativity without promising measurable results. Maybe these settings better fit how women write and learn, or maybe men are more susceptible to the isolated-genius myth, since they’re the ones who set it up in the first place (Emily Dickinson notwithstanding.) (OMG you’ve seen the trailer for the new show, right? It’s worth it.)

Ultimately, I don’t see anything wrong in telling ourselves that our creative impulses deserve time and attention, and since capitalism obviously conditions us to associate value and money, paying for something like a writing workshop is a declaration that you think your creativity has value. It is very hard to maintain that conviction alone, when we are carving creative time out of the waking hours that we are supposed to devote to making money and (if we are women) caring for our families. I think sometimes about Joanne Rowling in her Edinburgh cafe with her sleeping baby, writing a story about a boy wizard. The supposed happy ending is the wild success, making more money than the queen, but think for a minute about that mother, actually there in that cafe, day after day, and how much she must have overcome in herself to keep going back, to listen to the little boy she conjured up in her head. How easy it would have been to put it away and laugh at it, at herself. 

I have been—I just deleted “trying”—writing fiction again for a year or so. I have a forest of defensive language to protect it, my little hatchling novel, but I know that I’ve found a story that feels like me. It is so easy to become convinced that we have to shape what we write to fit the market, whether that’s the market of actual money or the market of prestige and prizes. But either way, the market is dumb. Publishing, like Hollywood, is always said to be risk averse, but it also has a very rigid idea of what constitutes a risk. Watered-down version number seventeen of something that hit before is a risk, of course it is, just as much as weird thing we love but don’t know how to market. It’s just that the sales team will back an editor on the first, and not the second—no matter how many times the weird thing becomes the hit.

Publishing is not the only measure of creative fulfillment, and the inequities built into it are real and dire. So why publish at all? Isn’t creativity morepleasurable when it’s private and pointless? Yes, of course. But writing just for yourself misses the part of creativity that really matters, that really pushes and changes you: the terror. It’s taken me a long time to learn this, after a childhood of scribbling in notebooks and hiding them under the bed, never finishing or sharing anything. One of the goals I set for myself this year was to publish a piece of fiction, which I am downgrading to at least sending it out, at least trying to push beyond the pleasure of just writing for myself. 

Me, Elsewhere:

This hasn’t shipped yet, but I am delighted to be a part of the second edition of The Second Shelf magazine, talking of course about the wonderful Marjorie Hillis. Allison has just triumphed in her long visa battle and been officially recognized as an outstanding literary citizen, so please support her and her business: pre-order the magazine and visit the shop (pictured below!) and help us all raise the profiles of women writers.

Culture Thing:

This week is early book Christmas, with the always massive, always sunny Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday and the National Book Awards longlists rolled out this week. Having been inside a little award-giving myself and knowing how arbitrary these things are, my heart always hurts for everyone quietly nursing their disappointment this week. Longlist to shortlist is the most painful winnowing, and like—can’t you just have a longer shortlist? Maybe it’s too many people to invite to the ceremony or something. Anyway, that aside, there are some amazing titles on this list, go buy one at your local indie bookstore this week, and big ups to Lisa and everyone at the NBF.

Good Thing:

Climate Strike. Follow the kids.