When my partner and I were in our mid-twenties and headed towards marriage we decided the best thing to do would be to adopt a dog. After all, a dog was a responsibility that proved your readiness for the fullness of adulthood. So we went down to the Nashville Humane Society month after month checking out dogs and waiting until “the one” appeared. Ranger was small and scrappy his white fur patched with brown spots that looked lovely with the red collar we purchased for him. The adoption paperwork said he had been found wild, living on the streets of Nashville and that he was part Italian greyhound. It only took us a few months and a little plumping to realize that our beloved dog was not Italian greyhound but a feisty and still wild pup.
After finishing school in Nashville, we moved to Indiana where we enrolled our dog in training classes at a place that was known as a last ditch effort for misbehaved dogs. The staff there was kind and compassionate to our wild mess of a dog, but they were also firm with me that I was the one that needed training in order to train my dog.
Over the course of three years, Ranger grew to know over 30 commands although still remained at heart, wild. During that same time I began to see animal training as a window in to my own leadership and ministry. As I learned to read animals and sense their mood in the group setting of training class, I began to read people better in around a conference room table. As I coaxed my own dog out of his wild ways, I slowly learned how to coax the gifts and talents of others out of them.
I have been thinking lately about that season of training, as I have worked on creating strength in my creative muscle. This spring marks the my second year participating in #the100daychallenge and has given me a time marker to reflect on the ways my creativity and work have grown. It has also been a time to think long and hard about how to grow that creative muscle in some different ways, try new ideas, techniques or finish projects that have drawn on too long.
So many writers and creatives talk about training the creativity by way of habit to show up on command. Often it is explained in simple terms, show up at your desk and write or paint or draw or make every day whether you want to or not, until the creativity is trained like a dog at a food bowl to show up at the same time everyday. This is helpful but in my experience I have found the process of drawing out creativity or drawing out new layers or tapping into new wells of creativity to be much like training wild things.
Coaxing the Wild Beast
Creativity like many wild things can start fleetingly and feel fragile. I have found that the best thing to do it to treat my creativity like a small, scared, skittish animal. I speak softly and kindly to my creativity. I hold out my hand gently and let it sniff around, if can get close enough I gently engage it.
I find that the spiritual practice of silence, while vital at every step of creativity, is especially important at this phase. This is the phase of creativity that is best coaxed through long hikes in the woods, quiet strolls by a pond, time at home with no television or radio. Silence has a quality that feeds the spirit, creative and otherwise.
Taming the Wild Beast
Once a wild thing is no longer skittish and unpredictable, you can begin to train it. Training I have learned is about predictability and consistency. This is where the writing manuals pick up–it is one thing to coax a wild thing into the open and trust to take a morsel of food from you. It’s another entirely to gain its trust my showing up and moving predictably so trust can be gained.
Setting aside a consist time to write or paint or create teaches your creativity that you are trustworthy. Over time it can be trained to show up at the same time day after day, week after week. This was the one piece of advice that I used to balk at as a younger creative. When I read Anne Lamott or Stephen King they would say that your creativity can be trained to show up on schedule, but it wasn’t until committed to a schedule that I understood how attainable this practice can be.
Letting it Lay by Your Feet
Ranger passed many years ago and a year or so ago we adopted a 9 year old chocolate lab. Her favorite thing to do is lay on my feet at my desk while I write. Her presence is neither obtrusive nor lacking. She is just there, the sound of her steady breath as she naps beneath me its own soundtrack that accompanies my keys.
This is the bliss of the creative life, that once you train your creativity to show up it sits like a low hum while you work. Does that mean you won’t get stuck? Not at all, getting stuck is part of the creative process and mean you are getting somewhere. Does it mean you won’t have dry spells? Nope, dry spells come but it does mean that you have the structure, discipline and ability to work your way through them.
Keeping the Beasts Interest
I used to find it selfish to spend a day when I could be working or writing at the art museum or strolling through the woods, but now I find that this work in necessary to keeping the creative beast interested and fed. Creativity like any living thing can get listless, I try to make a discipline of exposing my creativity to other mediums, experiences and writings. I try to read across multiple genres of books, I go to arts festivals as much to people watch as to eat corn dogs and look at art and I will indulge in sitting in the yard to sketch even if I am not very good at it. Because being good isn’t the point. Looking, noticing and exploring is the point.