How to be creative in the midst of chaos
Recently, I interviewed Lenore Herrem as the next Quill podcast guest. When I asked her what kinds of tools she uses to stay organized, she said, “I don’t.” She said that she is able to continue to live life in the midst of a messy kitchen, and unmade bed, and unanswered emails. And not only is she able to continue to live life, she is still able to be creative in the midst of (what I would consider in my own life) a state of mild chaos.
I know that many people live like Lenore does - perhaps even the majority of people. I’ve received enough comments from friends and family to suggest that my penchant for (and fixation on) keeping everything organized is not common. I try to believe that this is a superpower, rather than something to be embarrassed about. It’s not always easy, though. I feel a little like a lavender plant - finicky, and requiring the perfect conditions to push a creative sprout above soil to meet the sun. I envy those who are more like a mint bush, guaranteed to sprout and spread, thrive and take over its plot, unapologetically.
But lavender and mint are not two elements of a binary. They are siblings - they both belong to the same plant family. Maybe there is hope for me to be able to embrace the unexpected pain and beauty that comes when I lose a bit of control. There have been times in my life that I chose to do the exact thing I was afraid of, and I have been immeasurably rewarded in ways that I could not have predicted or hoped for.
This is a common theme in the writing of those who contemplate the artist’s life. The space between things we are sure of, is fertile soil for the seeds of our creative work. Brené Brown is a writer, speaker, and researcher who studies shame, and is well known for her TED talk, “The power of vulnerability.” Her research is sociological, and fascinatingly, seems to apply itself equally to the artist’s task as to human relationships. She defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”, and stipulates that when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we experience our lives and relationships in their fullest possible capacity. Notably, this definition of vulnerability does not mention controlling as much as we can feasibly control, or making sure our beds are made and our social calendars are kept up to date. Those things, although sometimes helpful, are only tasks. The opening of our hearts to those we love, and the careful listening required for creativity, are more than just tasks - this is work that irrigates life.
A few years ago, in order to avoid getting a job in a café or restaurant, I decided to busk full-time. Armed with my voice, some Verdi and Puccini, and a vintage suitcase to collect my coins, I descended into the metro to earn my rent. Although it did get a bit easier after the first week, I was scared shitless basically every time I opened my mouth to sing. I did it anyway, smiling with gratitude at each person that smiled back encouragingly, dropped a handful of change into my suitcase, sang along, or surreptitiously tucked a twenty-dollar bill into my hand with a wink. It was a difficult and magical summer, buoyed by connection and support from regular people appreciating my offering of beauty into their lives that day.
That summer, I was committed to the unknown in a way that was truly extraordinary. I chose to count on the compassion and generosity of strangers for my entire well-being, even though it was not guaranteed. It would have been easy to exude desperation or entitlement. Instead, I felt gratitude, even when I didn’t make as much in a day as I was expecting, even on the day of the downpour when I sang soaking wet and shivering, even when I couldn’t keep going because my voice quit from exhaustion. All those things I tend to want to control, seemed unimportant in light of the sense of aliveness I gained by inhabiting the unknown with gratitude. The next time chaos comes rushing in, I’m going to try seeing it as an opportunity to inhabit the space between. I know I can rise up to the challenge, just like a plant rises to meet the sun.