The Conundrum of Creativity (Or, Sometimes They May See You Sweat)

One fall day in my junior year of college, I met with my academic advisor, a bearded, gray-haired man in his early sixties who also happened to teach two of my Writing courses that semester.  It was late in the afternoon, his office overlooking the campus’s back parking lot.  Mellow October sunshine filtered in through the open window, the breeze ruffling the ungraded papers on his desk.

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We were talking about career choices.  What did I want to do with my life when I graduated?  I loved writing, of course.  I knew I wanted to be a writer. I’d known that since the second grade.  Maybe I’d need to acquire a “day” job to pay the bills, but the nights, the weekends–they would belong to my flights of fancy.

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My advisor smiled.  “If you love it,” he said.  “If you feel called to do it, then it’s right for you.  That’s the way I feel about teaching.”

I nodded, but perhaps sensing I thought he was just issuing a standard company line or that I wasn’t grasping the heart of his message, he went on: “You know, I’ve been teaching here for over thirty years.  I’ve probably forgotten more about writing and literature than most people will ever know.”  He laughed, shook his head, thumbed the thick glasses he wore up the bridge of his nose.  I sensed that, for a moment, his mind was peering back through the decades, wondering at the swiftness of it all, the transitory nature of life.

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“But I’ll tell you this,” he said.  “Before I walk into that classroom, I still feel butterflies.  I know there are students in there, my students, and maybe some of them even want to go on to become journalists or poets or novelists–just like you.  I have to be able to teach you something worthwhile.  Others? They’re probably taking my course because it’s required.  They don’t want to be there.  But maybe I can light a spark, you see.  Maybe I can inspire them to read something great long after they’ve forgotten all about me.”

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“You get nervous?” I asked.  Somehow the rest of his message had got lost.  After all, in class he never seemed nervous.  And why should he be?  He was one of my favorite professors–always engaging and interesting.  Teaching appeared to come so effortlessly, so naturally to him.

He smiled again.  “Just before class starts, my heart beats a little faster.  I do a quick mental checklist on the lesson.  Yeah.  I get nervous.  But that’s a good thing.”  He paused for effect. “It means I still care.  I still love what I do.  When the day comes that I don’t feel those butterflies before class, I’ll know it’s time to retire.”

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On July 3, 1950, New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio got word that he was slated to start the next game at first base.  Upon hearing the news, he wondered if it might be some sort of practical joke.  Him play first base?  He was the center fielder, he’d been the Yankees center fielder since his rookie season, fourteen years earlier.  He hadn’t played first base since his days in the minor leagues.

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But manager Casey Stengel was serious.

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The team was in a funk, and Stengel wanted to inject some youth into the outfield.  Inwardly, DiMaggio seethed.  Stengel had just joined the team as manager the previous season, whereas Joltin’ Joe, the Yankee Clipper, had been the star of the franchise for a decade and a half.  But he did not openly dispute his manager.  He readied himself to play first base.

Prior to the start of the game, DiMaggio fielded practice ball after practice ball, trying to acclimate himself to this new, foreign defensive position.  Before the first pitch was even thrown, his uniform was soaked with sweat.  Feeling like the proverbial fish out of water, DiMaggio had never been so nervous.

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During the game, he made no errors, but clearly looked out of sorts.  It was the longest game of his life.

The next day, DiMaggio was back in center field.  He never played first base again.

Later, he was asked why he felt so much pressure.  He was Joe DiMaggio, after all.  What did he have left to prove?  He had already cemented himself as one of the all-time greats, a sure first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.  Hadn’t he earned the right to relax?  Wasn’t his legacy assured?

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“There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time,” the Yankee Clipper responded.  “I owe him my best.”

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It is one of the tenets of writing, of any form of creative expression–we must first and foremost do what we love, express what matters to us, write about the relationships, ideas, concepts, themes, passions that resonate within, in some deep, secret chamber of the heart.  Whether we are singing opera or crafting poetry or writing blogs–it is imperative that we do what we want to do, what we are called to do.  As soon as we begin creating solely based on what others are doing or expecting, as soon as we force ourselves into a certain genre or form we don’t love, the results will suffer.

writewhatyoulove

 

And yet, and yet . . .

When the time arrives, and we decide to take the plunge and share our work with someone else, be it one person, a hundred, or thousands upon thousands, we no longer are creating in a vacuum.

Our work is now “out there.”  It has become a part of a larger whole, a single grain of sand on an artistic shore that expands, shifts, and evolves every day, every moment.

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Every time I publish a blog post, every time I share a story with someone, anyone, every time I see a new review of The Eye-Dancers posted on the Web, I feel those same butterflies my old English professor felt before the start of each class.

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Sometimes I berate myself.  Why should I care so much what others think of my work?  Don’t I write for myself, first and foremost?  Isn’t that enough?

And you know, the honest answer is–no.  It’s not enough.  If it were enough, I never would have released The Eye-Dancers, never would submit a short story to a literary magazine, never would publish a single blog post.  My words would simply sit there on the page, locked inside the hard drive of my computer or the folders inside my drawer.

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But that’s not why we create art.  We sing and dance and draw and write to share a piece of ourselves with others.  We write about a personal experience and then, when someone else, someone we don’t even know, reads it and says, “Yes!  I know what he’s saying, I’ve felt that way, too,” a special kind of magic takes place.

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It is that magic, that sharing, that bridging of the gap between us that makes writing and creating so worthwhile.

So yes.  As I hit that Publish button right now, I do feel a little bit nervous.

I wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Making the “Impossible” Perfect Game Possible

The 1956 World Series between the New York Yankees and the old Brooklyn Dodgers would go the full seven games, with the Yankees ultimately coming out on top.  But the game that would forever stand out was Game 5.  The series was tied, two games apiece, making the fifth game a pivotal tiebreak affair, which would give the winner a decided edge in the series.  It was October 8, 1956, at the old Yankee Stadium.  And the Yankees trotted out Don Larsen as their starting pitcher.

All he did was pitch the first and, to this day, the only perfect game in World Series history.  He faced twenty-seven batters, and each time, they failed to reach base.  The performance was remarkable for a number of reasons.  For one thing, the Dodgers fielded one of baseball’s most feared lineups.  Their scorecard was full of famous names and future Hall of Famers, from Pee Wee Reese to Jackie Robinson to Duke Snider, Roy Campanella and Gil Hodges.  The likelihood that anyone would throw a perfect game against that group seemed near-impossible.  That it was Don Larsen who threw it?

Well, that was impossible.

Larsen was the very definition of a journeyman pitcher.  Look up “mediocre” in the dictionary, and you might just find a smiling Larsen looking back at you.  He never topped 11 wins in a single season, and his career record of 81-91 won’t win him many prizes.  But on that October day in 1956, he was unhittable.

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perfectgame

They say that truth is often stranger than fiction, and in the case of Don Larsen’s perfect game, this is certainly the case.  If you were to write this as a piece of fiction, no one would believe it.  There was nothing about Larsen’s history that would have suggested such a performance possible, especially against such a powerful opponent.  Even Larsen’s manager, Casey Stengel, once said about his night-owl pitcher:  “The only thing he fears is sleep!”

So imagine, if you will, creating a character like Don Larsen in a novel.  He’s a fun-loving guy, not a bad pitcher, but far from a great one.  He’s just one of the guys.  And on the biggest stage in sports, against the best team in the league, in a pivotal game in a tie series, he pitches the greatest game in baseball history?  Readers would toss the book across the room.  “Nonsense,” they’d say.  “This kind of thing could never happen.”  “Leave that kind of corny stuff to Stallone!”

In fiction, even when a character does an about-face, when he or she rises to a challenge unexpectedly, there has to be something, some hint, some trait, that the reader can at least refer back to and say, “Okay.  I can buy it.  I can see the seeds of this big scene taking shape back in chapter five. . . .”

In The Eye-Dancers, the main characters all must come to terms with themselves, overcome something about themselves if they want to survive.  One of the most tense moments in the book, in fact, is when Ryan Swinton confronts Joe Marma.  Ryan has always been the follower, Joe the tough-guy leader.  They’ve known each other their entire lives, and Joe has always been in charge.  So when Ryan stands up to him in a difficult situation, late in the book, it has to come off as believable.  It can’t come out of nowhere, a character deus ex machina just to help propel the plot forward.  It has to be earnestly won, with foreshadowing and indications earlier in the story that Ryan has it in him to stand up to his take-charge but impulsive friend.  And hopefully those signs are there, and his moment of truth comes off as genuine.

Because if it comes off too much like Larsen’s perfect game, completely out-of-the-blue, then it won’t work. That kind of thing can’t happen in fantasy.

Only in reality.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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