Many times over the years, I have been impressed with the “other” talents of writers I admire. We are not only novelists and crafters of short fiction, we are dancers, singers, teachers, composers, musicians, farmers, cake decorators, painters, martial artists, animal trainers, and athletes. One shared characteristic of these activities is that they are all forms of creativity. Not only that, they force us to use our minds (and our bodies) in different ways than writing does.
Writing is hard work and it’s easy to get burned out. When we’re tired and our minds have gone numb, we’re tempted to think the remedy is to “zone out.” Passive activities (like watching television) create the illusion of rest and refreshment, but all too often leave us feeling even more drained than before. I propose that what benefits us most is not “down” time but “differently-creative” time.
Years ago, I noticed that at the end of my day-job week, all I wanted to do was curl up, usually in front of television. However, if I could get myself out to go dancing or to a concert, or even dinner with friends, I would finish the evening energized and enthusiastic about diving back into my current story the next morning. It was as if I’d started the weekend a day early, instead of dragging myself out of bed midway through Saturday and picking listlessly at last week’s tepid efforts. I think the same process holds true regardless of whether we work a 9-to-5 day job.
Five years ago, I decided to treat myself to piano lessons. I’d never studied music before, although I’d sat through hundreds of hours of my daughters’ lessons. Since I’m a skilled typist, I figured that the piano fingering would be simple. (I pause here for anyone who’s played a keyboard instrument to snort incredulously in my general direction.) Needless to say, I was soon juggling trying to make my hands, wrists, and shoulders do something new and exciting, and also wrap my mind around and through the internal structure of classical music, and also listen to what I was playing. As frustrating as this process can be, it’s also exhilarating. I’m asking my brain — motor, sensory, cognitive and kinesthetic functions — to work in a new way, a new and creative way.
(I’m going to sidestep the issue of whether a musical performer is “creative” in the sense of adding anything to the composition. I will say instead that playing music is inherently creative because you’ve gone from silence to the active presence of an art form whose medium is sound. A dancer who is performing a set choreography is creative in the same way.)
An essential part of the care of a writer is “filling the well” or “recharging the batteries.” It’s rare to be able to pour forth volume after volume of peerless storytelling while sitting in a room, isolated and absorbed only in the work. Most of us need to actively engage with other people and in other activities, to rest one part of our minds while flexing and strengthening others, to stockpile a treasure trove of sights, sounds, dreams, thoughts, emotions, relationships. Acquiring a new skill — whether it’s karaoke singing or mountain climbing, a Chopin Prelude or a perfect pirouette (human or equine), is a good way to begin.