"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Creative Life

What does it mean to live a creative life? Google images would have you believe it looks something like this:
Dalton Trumbo (Source)
Photo by Lynn Bauer (Source)
Wether you see yourself in a bathtub with a typewriter or painting in a field full of flowers, when picturing the creative life there's always a sense of creating something out of nothing, of a life that borders on chaos but never leaves the realm of possibility. Maybe this is why we love hearing about "process" and "routine." We're trying to explain the unexplainable.

On the surface level, the life of an intellectual like Darwin looks pretty darn perfect. His routine included working through the morning, long walks in the afternoon, and reading in the evening, all in a secluded, stately home in English countryside. What this routine doesn't show is the crippling doubt and stress induced by his work, and the inner turmoil that ruled his life, from his compulsive letter writing habits ("Darwin made a point of replying to every letter he received, even those from obvious fools or cranks. If he failed to reply to a single letter, it weighed on his conscience and could even keep him up at night." Sourceto the rift his scientific discoveries created between him and his wife. What I'm getting at here is that the creative life isn't all painting in fields of wild flowers.

This is not meant to discourage those looking to go into a career in the arts. It is however meant to dispel the idea we have of creative individuals as enlightened beings who have somehow transcended the plight of every day living. Even its opposite, the "tortured artist" trope, is an idealization in its own right. We are just like you. We have bad days, and we have good ones. They can be exciting and productive, but they can just as easily be mind-numbingly boring.

I really dislike the way we split ourselves into categories: left-brainded vs right-brained. Analytical vs. Creative. Conventional vs. Unconventional. As if accountants can't think creatively and artists can't be analytical. And worse, that the route we choose in life can be labeled as "lucrative" or not, that we are suddenly seen as outsiders if the path we choose doesn't point towards clear-cut success.

While writing this article I stumbled across a quote by John O'Donohue that reads:

"The call to the creative life is a call to dignity, to a life of vulnerability and adventure..."

While I appreciate the sentiment, I would argue that it's not the just the creative life that should contain these things, but life in general. Here's to living a life of vulnerability and adventure, whether you are working a 9-5 job or making things up in a cabin in the woods.


Check out this fantastic info-graphic on the creative life. If you're lucky, I would hope your life includes lots of these things, even if you're not living the creative ideal.

I've been really interested in Darwin lately, can you tell? Read more about his daily routine here, and don't miss out on this awesome graphic novel biography.

If you haven't noticed, I link to Brain Pickings a lot. It is a compendium of knowledge I never would have discovered otherwise, and I highly recommend you go subscribe to their newsletter. Like, right now.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Quote of the Day: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Over winter break I got a chance to see the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Besides confirming my dream of one day traveling to Iceland, it was also a beautiful movie to watch, and it was superbly acted by all those involved. This film is full of memorable quotes, from the funny ("You know who looks good in a beard? Dumbledore. Not you.") to the profound ("Beautiful things don't ask for attention."), and of course it's hard to overlook the "motto" of the film (And of Life Magazine): "To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the meaning of life."But the quote that struck me the most was something said in a conversation between Walter Mitty and the photographer Sean O'Connell.

They are on a mountaintop, watching a snow leopard that Sean is trying to photograph.

Walter Mitty: Are you going to take it?
Sean O'Connell: Sometimes I don't. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don't like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.
Walter Mitty: Stay in it?
Sean O'Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here.

Those few lines of dialogue hit me right in the stomach. There, sitting in the dark movie theatre, I thought of my phone nestled in my purse. I hadn't turned it off; it was still on vibrate. I could feel every e-mail, every text message I received. The same was probably true for everyone in the theatre.

I come from a family of photographers. We record everything, from Christmas and birthdays to visits to our favorite coffee shop. We once spent a good chunk of a family dinner showing my Uncle how to use Instagram. Don't get me wrong. I love taking pictures. I love documenting little moments, enhancing them with filters, and the thrill of sending them out into the world. I love film photography, too. The smell of chemicals, the feel of developer on your fingers. I love that the stakes are higher, and that it forces you to be thoughtful at every stage in the process. As a writer, I am a recordist by nature. Every moment is trapped, filtered, and congealed on the page, but words still pale in comparison to the actual experience.

That little moment in Walter Mitty made me reevaluate the way I was living my life. It reminded me that not all moments have to be recorded in order for them to be meaningful. The most powerful memories can only happen when you are fully present. Sure, I'm glad I have so many instagram photos, but there's a certain kind of comfort that comes with knowing I wasn't distracted during the experiences that meant the most to me. Things like standing on the stage at Carnegie hall, or having Thanksgiving dinner in Ireland with my family in the 7th grade. Things like that don't need to be validated by a photograph or even a poem or a short story. They just are.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is full of messages like this one. It's a movie about going into the unknown and facing your fears. It's about living life to the fullest and not letting yourself fall into the trap of dreaming but never doing. In a world where everything is vying for our attention, I think we could all learn to be a little bit more choosy about what we let ourselves get distracted by, and inevitably, what we're missing.

Afterthoughts: I don't want anyone to think that after seeing this film I suddenly gave up instagram (or facebook or youtube or one of myriad other distractions). Sean O'Connell's words (or, really, his character's words) simply inspired me to think (and write) about this subject. My goal is to find a balance between capturing moments and experiencing them.

I hope you found this post interesting, and if you have thoughts on Walter Mitty, photography, or anything discussed above, I'd love to hear about it in the comments. This post is part of a sporadic series that I started a while back, where I take a closer look at the quotes that resonate with me. You can read the first of this series, here. As always, thanks for reading!