Something I’ve learned through the years. If I’m not writing or being creative in some capacity, I put my happiness at risk. Better said, I become a lukewarm version of myself.
Creativity. It’s always been a vital part of who I am as a person. For as long as I can remember, this has been true.
My creative outlet as a small boy was drawing…
When I was a small boy, I drew anything and everything in sight, and dreamed of one day attending the Art Instruction School for which the commercials some of you may remember began with, “Do you like to draw or paint?”
No sooner than I saw this commercial on TV did I find my art tablet and get to work. Granted, at the time, being a young boy, I didn’t realize this school was what we now refer to as long-distance learning, specifically mail-correspondence only.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. As the Great Depression began to wind down, Charles Schulz’ mother saw a print ad for the Art Instruction School that asked the same question—”Do you like to draw?”—and had her son complete the test by mail, where he would later enroll in the full offering despite the steep $170 cost. To pay for their son’s studies after high school, Schulz’ father worked odd jobs once off the clock.
Three of Schulz’ most famed characters from PEANUTS were based on co-workers and friends during Schulz’ time as an instructor at the Art Instruction School, including Charlie Brown, Linus Maurer, and Frieda Rich.
A story about naked women
You’ll have to get my mom to tell it to you after church, but there’s a funny story about me drawing naked women from a neighborhood-dad-who-shall-go-unnamed’s PLAYBOY collection that me and a friend-who-shall-go-unnamed found under his bed; and my mom, in turn, finding my drawings and placing them slap dab on the front of the fridge, then asking me when my next baseball game was, and as I went to look at the fridge at the baseball schedule, there they were, my stark nude drawings—in very good detail I may add. I was in minor league at this time, so I’m probably no more than nine years old as this moment unfolds.
You may also like: Austin Kleon on 10 Things Every Creative Person Should Remember
Then it was poetry…
I started writing poetry in middle school and entered the Sparrowgrass Poetry Forum contest that perhaps every middle schooler who ever wrote a poem entered at some point in time in their life. I know one for sure: Sara Bader. I know this because we both had our English teacher, Ms. Jackson, proof our poems for any redundancies prior to submission. As a naive youngster, I didn’t know the Sparrowgrass Poetry Forum contest was largely a ripoff where suckers who wrote poetry would submit their poetry, make it into the anthology, then buy the anthology, thus making the people behind Sparrowgrass Poetry Forum rich. Granted, I never bought the anthology despite my success as a published poet at the ripe age of eleven years old.
In high school, I dated this girl, who, to put it mildly, I was a bit head over heels for. Enamored would be an apt term. I used to write her love poetry like it was going out of style, which, technically did occur in the 1800s. My guess is most of what I wrote I would be embarrassed to read nowadays, but back then, I would be smitten by inspiration on the drive to her house, and I would quite literally (yes, to use the term appropriately) pull off on the side of the road to jot down the lines that entered my head, so that by the time I arrived at her house I would have a new poem to give her.
Another thing I learned from writing poetry in high school was that you could get paid actual money writing. Like real dollar bills, including fives, tens, and twenties. For example, Chad Lipscomb was once called “The High School Shakespeare” by Mrs. Cox after reading a poem in her class at Randolph-Henry. Chad paid me $20 for that poem at the basketball court a few days before.
Then it was music…
We never made it past the cow pasture (for the most part), but I was once in a legendary band known as Anti-Lou, proud winner of the LOUIE OF THE WEEK award—whatever that is. Though we disbanded before most of us made it past the ripe age of 18, I like to think Anti-Lou was the soundtrack of many a youth in Charlotte County, Virginia, in the 1990s. Something like an Uncle Screwtape Part II. I’m pretty sure someone lost their virginity to our debut album which included the smash hit “Rearview Mirror.”
Read: A Brief History of Anti-Lou
While in Anti-Lou, I played bass, but also sang lead on a few songs, including, yes, a cover of “Louie, Louie.” If you’ve ever wanted to hear me sing, and who hasn’t, am I right?, here I am in all my glory at the age of sixteen years old. Note the pop-culture savvy Monica Lewinsky reference.
Then it was writing prose…
In addition to doing the whole down on one knee gig and cutting a piece of cheese into the shape of a heart and writing out “I Cheese You” with roses (and my cheese-shaped heart), I also proposed to my wife by unveiling her as a character in a short story I gave her just moments prior called SKIPPING PEBBLES WITH SHUT EYES, which is about a young boy and a young girl who sit on adjacent banks of a pond from one another. The boy calls over to the girl from afar, but she fails to hear his call; and so the young boy begins to paint a portrait of the young girl so that he can carry a piece of her with him always.
There are about three stories hidden within this story, one of which dates back to my tenth grade year in high school when I was this close to confessing my love for my now-wife. But I didn’t. She battled anorexia that year and missed the bulk of that school year, and that summer, once she got well, started dating someone, and I, too, would date someone else—the girl I reference above to whom I wrote the love poetry.
Read: Do You Not Know How Beautiful You Are?
Nevertheless, an excerpt from SKIPPING PEBBLES WITH SHUT EYES goes as follows:
“Hello,” says the boy.
The young girl does not hear him.
“Hello,” he calls again and still she does not hear.
A blade of grass rests between her thumb and forefinger. The scent of the plucked grass reminds her of her father in the summer—in the yard working, their Springer spaniel chasing butterflies back and forth in the freshly cut grass. She pinches and rolls the blade in her finger staining her skin slightly. She picks up another blade repeating the same action then drops the blade of grass in the pond, littering its surface. The little pieces slowly float away and she sees her reflection circling outward, somewhat blurred from the blades of grass, which has created a ripple effect and from the water being stirred from the adjacent bank by thrown pebbles, one after the other, smooth and sandy in color, that break its surface.
Across the bank, the young boy begins to sketch in his tablet the young girl, who, no matter how many times he calls, does not hear his call. In his left hand, he rubs with his thumb and index finger the smooth surface of the last pebble nestled in his palm. He looks athwart once more. He hears the dripping of the water from a nearby creek and the chorus of grasshoppers place their back legs against their forewings and produce a whirring and the crickets play the accompaniment chirping.
Whirring and chirping…
And the male cicadas positioned in the tall grass and in the trees shrill.
And whirring and chirping and shrilling…
And the creeping rootstocks of the cattails begin to sway and the long leaves begin to shake. And the frogs begin to ribbit and the toads begin to croak and the fish in the water, they dance, dance upside down and downside up. And the young boy looks again across the bank of the millpond, but the girl has disappeared, she has gone. So he begins to sketch faster, to capture her before it is too late.
I’ve written a couple of books and outlined a couple of others. Enough plotlines reside in my head for a lifetime. You can’t read them anywhere, but perhaps one day. I’m still in my 10,000 hours to genius stage as referenced by Malcolm Gladwell, so making these available would be too soon. One day. Yes, one day. In all seriousness, I do have some good news coming in the next month or so that involves a story very close to me. It will involve supporting a good cause too.
Until then, if all I have to show is my short story THE LADY NEXT DOOR I am okay with that. I love that story. I wrote it in 2003, and because of its simplicity and message, it may likely be my favorite thing I’ve ever written. You can read it on your Kindle or Kindle app, and if you don’t know how to do that, contact me and I can assist you. The story itself costs 99 cents. I’d make it free, but a 15-page story for less than a buck isn’t exactly a ripoff. Plus, I’ve got kids to feed and web hosting to pay and I let you read all this for free as is on my blog.
P.S. Click here to buy the story
Some of the most pleasurable moments of my life involve being creative. Some of the lowest points in my life often coincide when I’ve let my creativity become but a blunt instrument, unused. I’ve learned this truth through self-reflection over the last two years when I confronted my anxiety and began taking back my life.
Read: Hi, My Name is Jeff, and I Suffer from Anxiety
It’s worth asking the question: is there anything in your life that has this same effect? If so, take hold of it and love it just as you did as a child. Or, to quote Charles Bukowski, “Do it. Do It. DO IT . . . and it will be better than anything else you can imagine. There is no other feeling like that.”
What’s your experience or advice? Share it in the comments below.
Thanks for reading.
Written by Jeffrey Pillow, author of the coming-of-age memoir in progress When the Lights Go Out at 10:16, which you can read on this blog as it’s being written. When the Lights Go Out at 10:16 is a story of growing up in small town America in the 1980’s in a teeny tiny town known as Phenix, in Charlotte County, Virginia. It is a story of life and friendship in the face of terminal cancer. Want to read more blog posts? Visit the blog archive. You can also subscribe to this blog to receive updates of new posts by email. Or, follow me on Twitter (I just re-joined).
You may also like: To Be Creative, What Are the Best Habits to Follow by Gretchen Rubin
10 replies on “If I am not being creative, I become a lukewarm version of myself and jeopardize my happiness”
I know I repeat myself so much, but Jeff I love to read everything you write. It is truly from your heart!
Keeping it real since 1981
The Playboy story is hilarious. Haven’t we all snuck at least one from someone’s hidden stash at that age?
At least one, if not a couple hundred. But that’s an entirely different story all its own.
I have realized over time that if I’m not pursuing something creative I feel myself falling deeper into anxiety and depression. Jobs that have made me feel less creative tend to bring me to my knees until I find a way out of them, especially if I have no creative pursuits outside of work, which is something I’ve had happen more often than not over the past several years. Finding a balance and keeping myself energized enough to follow through with my ideas has taken a lot of my energy these past few months but has absolutely been worth it.
Can totally relate. For those of us lucky enough to be born a creative, a creator of something, ideas, art, words, we have to stoke the fire to keep it burning to ward off the coldness of depression and emptiness.
I feel you entirely about the need to create in order to be alive. But also – the 10,000 hours thing. I’d forgotten about that. It’s a relief, kind of, right? Like, “OH! I haven’t earned being brilliant yet! That explains it. Phew.”
I plan on re-reading the prose in this piece soon and I’ll submit comments separately. Thanks for being you, Pillow.
10,000 hours. That’s how I explain the vast majority of what I do that to me comes out as a flaming bag of dog poo on someone’s front porch step. “Only at hour 1,750,” I say. “Still have 8,250 hours to go.”
This tripped me out. I think I submitted something to a Sparrowgrass Poetry anthology when I was probably 12 or 13 after seeing an ad in MAD magazine.
Throw it back why don’t you? I haven’t thought of MAD magazine since 1987 while standing in a grocery store check-out line on summer vacation.