Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, but imagination encompasses the Universe.”
Recently, Laura Hannah, who is earning her Ph. D. in poetry at Valdosta State University, asked me to give a little talk to the Phi Kappa Phi society. It was a great honor to be asked and to be inducted into that society, and I thank her again for that opportunity. I asked her what I should talk about, and she suggested creativity, which I liked since it’s such a mysterious thing and one could spend a lifetime trying to figure it out. Each person has to come up with their own creative outlet, but here’s what has led me to writing.
Growing up, I had the great good fortune to spend some of my high school years with the Dominican nuns at St. Agnes Academy in Houston, Texas. The English teacher and the Theology teacher, both nuns, had one requirement: a written page a week. (I think they were in cahoots.) They required each student to write a page of what was thought and felt, not what was done. In other words, you couldn’t write: “I went to school or what I had for breakfast.” Those two nuns, sometimes, would collect our pages and give grades. Or sometimes they’d just walk around the room making a big check on the top of the page. So, you never knew when you were going to get a grade or a check. You had to come up with something. At first, everyone viewed that page-a-week as a chore and would wait until Thursday night to put something down on paper. But even that exercise was good. It gave you a chance to look back over the week and find something of value. Sometimes one nun or the other would read a few sentences from someone’s work—not giving the name of the writer—but citing a particular word or line they thought was good. It was a great honor to have something you wrote read out loud in class. I can hear Sister Pat, even now, saying she liked the word “cahoots,” that I just wrote. Till this day, whenever I’m able to use a good five-dollar word in my writing—not a 50 cent word, she didn’t care for inflated words—I can feel her approval.
It’s a great idea to keep a journal under your pillow, so when you wake up in the middle of the night, you can write, and a page a week is a good goal, at first.
The other thing that was required by the English teacher was copying. About every other week, she would pass out a few pages of the Houston Chronicle and require that we copy one article, word for word. We had to write the entire 50-minute class time and turn it in. That’s a long time to sit at a desk and write. (Nowadays, I sometimes write three hours and feel like it’s ten minutes.) We all thought it was just her way of gettting out of teaching for a period. Still, at least for me, the value of that exercise paid off. I’m a bit dyslexic, so I’m a terrible speller. I would always be surprised at how a word was spelled or of how someone wrote a sentence. Later on, I read that many good writers copy, word for word, from other writers they admire. Benjamin Franklin, it’s said, as a way to learn newspaper style, copied other newspapers’ articles, word for word, when he was writing for his newspaper. Writing is hard work in a way, but once you develop the muscle between your hand and your brain it seems much easier. Graham Greene illustrated that fact, once, holding up a green ashtray and saying, “I could write a novel about this ashtray.”
I know he was bragging, but whenever I’m working on something, I get all kinds of little clues that help me. Once, I started writing a story about some people in an adobe house out on the desert, all the while thinking I knew nothing about adobe houses or the desert. At a doctor’s office, I was leafing through a Cosmopolitan magazine—I’m far too economical to ever buy one—but I came across seven pages of text and photographs of an adobe house an architect was building out on the desert. Can you believe it? Seven pages of text and photographs!!!! I tore those pages out.
Also, reading is probably the most important creative thing you can do. No matter what your field is, make it a point to read. You’ll find meaning and right direction by reading the greats, Milton, Tolstoy, Elliot, and even more right here in the South: Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Reynolds Price, Pat Conroy, and Eugenia Price to name a few. Find those authors and those books and magazines that speak to you.
Also, turn all the electronic stuff off. I call them psychic vampires because they all are set up to catch you, pull you in, and waste your time. Think about it. What program or message do you remember from last year that made a lasting impression? If you can even remember one or two, you’re lucky. Now, when you’re tired or sick or it’s late at night, that’s different. Allow yourself a few minutes to use those gadgets. But to be creative you have to face boredom: you have to be quiet and think your own thoughts. Don’t let other people’s thoughts eat away your precious hours. Find that creative thing that feeds you: no matter what it is. Think of Eric Hoffer who worked as a stevedore on the docks of San Francisco and came home at night, bone tired, to write philosophy books. Find those authors and find your creative outlet. It can be a thousand different things since each person is so unique: art, gardening, cooking, even being a good friend is an art.
The last thing that helps creativity is prayer or meditation, call it whatever you want. Einstein was so bored with his job at the patent office that he often found himself in that state between waking and sleeping. The ideas for his five famous theorems seemed to have come to him out of the ether. Many, many inventors and artists and entrepreneurs say their best ideas come to them almost full blown when they were just waking up or just falling asleep: “Where did you come from, baby dear?/ Out of the nowhere into the here.” That’s when a journal comes in handy.
And prayer and meditation are very helpful to give you the feeling that Someone is in charge, that is besides yourself. I pray the rosary every night and often say it twice, since I have trouble sleeping. I really don’t think the words, I just wrap white circles around the people I love and the ones I think need help because of troubles or illness. I always end up praying for the Middle East since things are so bad in those countries. Say the prayers you learned as a child, find prayers or sayings that mean something to you and memorize them, or make up your own prayers.
Do you ever look back at the lives of your grandparents or your parents or yourself and are amazed at how things worked out for them and for you? There, right there, are three novels, or a hundred poems, or more.
And remember, no matter how great an idea is, if it’s not written down, it vanishes. I have people telling me all the time: “I have a wonderful story if I could just get it down on paper.” “My folks were all story tellers and I have a hundred good stories. I just need to write them down.”
Do you have a family story that’s been told over and over after dinner? Is there a poem in an old notebook in a drawer somewhere that your teachers said was wonderful and you’ve never forgotten? Do you like jokes and have a little routine you do at the family reunion? Do you have a recurring dream that haunts you? Those are clues to something great, and they’re priceless. Start with them and write them down. The old Asian adage: “The faintest ink lasts longer than the strongest memory” is the heartbreaking truth.