TAKEAWAY: Sometimes our creative muse needs a respite from distraction, and we have to give her that room.
“Of course I’m not creating anything. I don’t have time to do it, I have all these tiny little obligations.”
You know how it feels when the creative tide is in, and your muse is pounding on your brain? You have so many ideas, so much to communicate. Through your pen. Through your brush. Through your guitar.
But you also have three piles of laundry, cookies you promised to bake for the school’s bake sale, and an email inbox filled to bursting.
The quote above is something writer and writing professor Erin Ergenbright told me when I interviewed her last summer in Portland, Oregon, on my cross-country trip across America interviewing creatives. (You can see a five-minute video interview with her at the bottom of this post.) Erin helps her students tap into their creativity, to overcome writer’s block and to find their voice. But she hit a creative dry spell last year.
A solo retreat to the woods reunited her with her muse, but upon her return to civilization she faced a new challenge — holding on to her muse when the demands of life tore at her anew. When I met with her, she was just entering that magical manic moment of creative motivation. The smart thing for her would have been to tell me to buzz off. Instead, she gave a little of her time to share with me how she was going to tell others to buzz off.
Well, she put it more delicately than that.
One of Erin’s talents is combining the written word with tactile objects; she calls herself a “collagist,” or collage artist. Erin co-wrote a collage-based book, “The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook,” with fellow University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA graduate Thisbe Nessen. When I arrived she immediately showed me a new bookshelf she had installed to hold all of the papers and other visual scraps she planned to use for a new collage project. (The shelf, by the way, was second hand. All of her highly tasteful furniture she finds used, a way to have a funky living space while going easy on the Earth.)
Erin’s father was a professional photographer. As she explains in the video, she learned at an early age that if the light was right, her father might stop the car and take just the right shot, even if it took hours. “My dad had a right to do that,” she said, adding “I got away from that.” She’s let others dictate her calendar, and thus her windows for creativity.
When I met Erin she was putting in place proactive steps to ensure she’d have the isolation she needed to write and collage, the isolation she had enjoyed when she was younger, when she was at Iowa. Friends? They’d have to understand that she might not call back or respond to emails immediately. Students? She’d keep office hours, but they’d have to have the same patience with returning calls and answering emails.
Erin had taken the first big step — acknowledge the problem. She had also identified its particulars and set out a path to address them. The hard part, of course, is teaching yourself not to check your voice mail, not to look in your inbox. A thoughtful person like Erin can find it hard to be selfish, and a social person like Erin can find it hard to be isolated.
Life is a balance. Just as the creative tide flows in and out, so do those “tiny little obligations” Erin mentioned. We can’t completely control our muse or those around us, but we can work with those around us to maximize our creative moments.