The Creative Process  

Rhett once told me he wrote better with his cat nearby.

Rhett claimed he wrote better with his cat nearby.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder with Rhett, a freshman teetering on the edge of both manhood and writing excellence, we examined his response to the latest writing assignment: a one-paragraph description of a vivid moment experienced in the past month. He’d chosen to write about the final seconds before he pushed off for his first run on a black-diamond ski trail. As I read his words, I wished he’d written more —an unusual experience for an English teacher correcting papers.

As we finished talking about his piece, Rhett said, “Mrs. Bohart, how important is the stuff you teach us about how to get an idea to write about and develop it? I don’t do any of those things. I just decide what to write about and then write and rewrite until I think it’s good.”

Well, that was an eye-opener.

Rhett’s words motivated me to read about the processes involved in creating — whether it’s planning a vegetable garden, tatting a lace edging, making music, taking photographs, designing buildings, drawing cartoons, or decorating a home.

As I read, I learned the creative process is unique and individual: like bikinis, one size doesn’t fit all. While it helps to learn and practice the basics of any hobby or passion, when we apply everything we’ve learned to create a product, we gradually develop a process that works for us.

I enjoy reading about the practices and techniques of other writers. But knowing an author I admire writes 1000 words a day in the nude while soaking his feet and chewing licorice root doesn’t mean I should do the same.

For example, I never create a detailed plan before writing. I can’t take time to make an outline or jot notes when my head is buzzing with an idea. I’m on fire to write, so I do. Sometimes my fire runs out of fuel by the third paragraph, but usually it blazes along quite nicely.

I also refuse to set a daily goal in order to force myself to write a set amount of time or a specified number of words every day. Sometimes, when I’ve fussed too long over a piece, a paragraph, or a sentence, I walk away from it. Other times, I prefer to continue banging my head against a wall. Either way, I’m not worried about making a quota.

Like Rhett, I’ve individualized my writing process; and I’m glad that, many years ago, I had the wisdom to tell my talented student to take the advice of others only when it made sense and worked for him.

Then, to my dismay, he did just that. He totally ignored my oft-repeated advice to pursue a career in writing so he could dedicate a book to me and choose instead to graduate from college with a degree in business management.

Never Question the Interests of Others

“Be careful what you wish for,” we’re warned. “Be careful what you ridicule,” I’d add.

Too often during my quick-to-judge life, I’ve had to retract adamant statements uttered with overtones of arrogance. These pronouncements usually began “I wouldn’t be caught dead…” and often involved the beloved pastimes of others. I hereby apologize to fans of the following interests for my misplaced smugness and scorn.

(1) Golf: “This is a sport?” I’d mutter as I sat in an easy chair, flipped through the channels, and paused on something called The Master’s where the announcers whispered to each other and the players took strolls. But because my husband enjoyed the game, I took golf lessons and learned one thing: I am poorly equipped to play a game where you’re taught a thousand things to think about before you even tee off. Then, as you walk onto the green, mind a-buzz, you’re told to forget everything and “Let ‘er rip.”

So I’d rip, watch my ball dribble ten feet from the tee, and think, “How does anyone play this incredibly complex game?”

Icono sudoku

(2) Sudoku: I’m a word person. My math career ended with high school geometry and Mr. Stone, who prowled the room with a yardstick as he had an ongoing dialogue with Arnold Edgefield, a boy with a head full of theorems, postulates, and cowlicks. If anyone appeared indifferent to their brilliant dissection of the day’s topic, Mr. Stone whacked the culprit’s desk with his yardstick. Sometimes we had to duck to avoid flying bits of yardstick, but it felt good to be involved.

I lost all control of numbers that year, so why would I want to do a puzzle filled with them?

Then, to help pass the time on an endless flight, I tackled Sudoku in the airline’s magazine. To my surprise, solving the puzzle didn’t require complex mathematical procedures, but, instead, reasoning and recognizing the numerals one to nine. That I could do; I was hooked.

(3) Refinishing antique furniture: As my mother worked at restoring a battered oak dresser, my teenaged self declared that when I had my own house, I would furnish it with chrome, glass, mirrors, and leather, not “all this old wood stuff.”

Mom smiled, kept working, and said, “Whatever you want, Toots.”

Now I fill with pleasure when relatives visit me and say my home reminds them of Mom’s. Forget the two maxims I mentioned earlier and remember only this one: “Appreciate your mother.”

Amazed explorer looking through binoculars

(4) Bird watching: Seeing a book on North American birds on a flea market table, I wondered why anyone would tip-toe around, wearing binoculars and a pith helmet, in search of a specific species of sparrow. I then resumed my search for marble eggs of a different hue than those I already had.

But after retiring, I began to notice the birds in my backyard, bought binoculars of my own, and soon experienced the rewards of watching birds: interesting creatures with unique habits, songs, and plumage that add color and melody to my world.

For someone who advises others to pursue interests, adopt hobbies, and find a passion, I used to be unbearably judgmental about the pastimes of others. But I now know better. In fact, I’ve been thinking about going to a demolition derby or maybe a tractor pull. And if I become a fan, I hope you won’t judge me as I have judged you.

Why Have Hobbies?

In a recent Peanuts cartoon, when Lucy told Charlie Brown she was thinking of starting some new hobbies, Charlie said, “That’s a good idea, Lucy. The people who get most out of life are those who really try to accomplish something.”

Looking appalled, Lucy replied: “ACCOMPLISH something? I thought we were just supposed to keep busy.”

In the past, I thought like Lucy. Viewing hobbies as busy work to fill my idle moments, I pursued decoupage, macramé, origami, tatting, and yodeling. Each endeavor enjoyed the same success as my wish to be 5’6”.Wreath

My search for a busy-work hobby peaked when I scoured fields and ponds for nuts, pinecones, grasses, and twigs, which I used to make Christmas wreaths. I gave these creations to loved ones, who exclaimed happily and hung them in their snug homes.

I had used liberal amounts of a smelly liquid adhesive to attach my found treasures to the wreath frames. Too liberal. Over time, as the adhesive heated in warm homes, my carefully collected bits of the outdoors drooped from the wreaths and dangled like so many hapless bungee jumpers.

Looking back, I realize I also shared Charlie Brown’s notion of hobbies; my attempts to keep busy should accomplish something: impeccable cream puffs, granny-square afghans for all, a homemade wardrobe with nary a puckered sleeve or uneven hem, artistic greeting cards often made at get-togethers where participants share ideas and cut perfectly square corners.

I  thought an accomplishment was a learned skill that yielded an impressive product rather than an activity pursued for the pleasure of doing it. Though I backpacked in the Sierras every chance I had, I didn’t consider it a hobby. It was too much fun. I liked it when my legs stretched strong and my breath slid deep; I relished standing in the smell of pines to watch ridgelines march into the distance and a river tumble below. But the joyful experience yielded nothing I could enter in the country fair.

I learned that process is as rewarding as product from my mother, when she shared with me her passion for rescuing abused pieces of wooden furniture hidden under layers of paint. Working with her in the sunshine of my Nevada home, I scraped, sanded, stained, and oiled. Doing so, I realized that the smells, movements, and tactile experiences of the process pleased me as much as having a new, lovely piece of furniture.wooden chair

To this day, when I walk by something one of us refinished, I’m compelled to reach out and run my hand over it, an involuntary act of connection.

The synonyms for hobby — pastime, diversion, leisure pursuit — trivialize it. Hobbies satisfy my soul. When I’m immersed in one, I’m both Charlie Brown and Lucy: staying busy and accomplishing something — but with the added benefit of fulfillment. And I feel at one with potters, cooks, gardeners, skiers, kayakers, and photographers: all those who find completion in a process.

 

Is It A Hobby or a Passion?

A young woman with impeccable posture rat-tatted decisively on stiletto heels toward the waiting area where I sat. Pushing her sunglasses to the top of her head, she sat, checked her watch, sighed, and turned to me.

Weary, travel-stained, not wanting to talk, gulping a salad I had purchased as I galloped toward my connecting flight, I avoided eye contact.

“Have they offered an explanation for the late departure?” she asked.

“No.”

“I have an important meeting I simply can’t miss. I hate this airport. Why are flights out of Denver always late?” foul weather

Resisting the urge to point to the windows and the raging spring blizzard obscuring the runways, I shrugged my shoulders and returned to my salad. Undeterred, she said, “I’ll bet you’re going to Reno to gamble.”

Wondering if her assessment had been influenced by a stray bit of spinach caught in my teeth, I replied, “I’m doing a book reading in Carson City tomorrow.”

“Oh, you write? Good for you! How nice it must be at your age to find something to keep you busy. I always thought writing might be a fun little hobby; maybe I’ll tinker with it some day.”

Well, thank you very much: in addition to being as irritating as the United States Congress, Miss Hoity Toity, you just helped clarify my thinking about hobbies and passions: two concepts I’m prone to ramble on about as though they were identical twins.

I think I might have been looking for a hobby — an enjoyable activity — when I enrolled in a memoir-writing class after I retired. But the joy I found in writing quickly caused it to become a passion — an object of intense emotions and enthusiasm.

Writing engrosses me, challenges me, rewards me. At times, I also feel disappointed, frustrated, or discouraged. But, invariably, I wake up the next day eager to tackle the problems that defeated me the day before.woman using laptop on the bed

Deep in these thoughts, I munched my salad, ignored my self-important neighbor as she bossed people around on her cell phone, and wondered what separates one person’s hobby from another person’s passion.

To me writing is a passion and knitting is a hobby. I’m compelled to write or revise nearly every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes; but I can go long periods of time without feeling the need to knit one and purl two.

It could be the other way around. I could be immersed in patterns and yarn and learning new stitches every day, feeling engrossed, challenged, and rewarded, telling others that knitting is my passion.

So the difference between a passion and a hobby seems to be an individual choice based on the level of commitment, fascination, and reward that any activity from chess to fly-fishing to dancing offers its adherents.

Thanks to Miss Highfalutin and the chain of thought she motivated, I now understand that though I have many hobbies, I have only one passion. As Gloria Steinem said, “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

An Apprentice Bird Watcher

turtle doveI’m a late-blooming bird watcher. In the past, I only noticed large birds I could easily identify: ostriches, turkeys, eagles — penguins, too, if I’d ever seen one.

I chuckled at folks who glued binoculars to their heads and whispered worshipfully to one another about any bird they encountered.

My idea of bird watching was driving down the road, crunching Cheetos, singing along to Creedance Clearwater Revival, and pointing out big things with wings.

Then the years passed, and flower gardening caught my fancy, increasing my yard time and making me aware of the birds that fussed around the feeders my husband maintained: birds familiar from my childhood like sparrows, turtledoves, and finches. Cheerful souls, these regulars at Joel’s Diner enjoyed any food offered and didn’t sulk when he ran out of food or forgot to open.

purple finchSoon I began to notice different birds that occasionally dropped by for visit or snack. Joel, more advanced in ornithology, labeled them for me: chickadees, siskins, downy woodpeckers, cedar waxwings. When I sighted my first goldfinch, I excitedly announced that I’d seen a canary in our aspen tree. Joel looked at me askance.

My interest grew. I started watching for newcomers, consulting bird books, and distinguishing calls. I even ignored my husband’s dismay at my difficulties with binoculars — “Janet, turn them around. You’re looking through the wrong end,” — and practiced until I could focus in and locate birds faster than I could say two-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.

Before long, I was peering through binoculars and providing detailed descriptions to anyone who would listen: “It’s blue on top, sort of a dirty white underneath. It has white and black on its wings, and on its tail too. Oh, it has one of those crest things. You know, it looks a lot like a blue jay.…..I think it is a blue jay!” I was hooked.

chickadeeOther than the amazing hummingbirds that like the bee balm and honeysuckle we plant for them, orioles and grosbeaks are the flashiest birds to spend extended time with us. I feel bad about the name grosbeaks have to carry around—I know how I’d feel if I’d gone though life being called Shortnose.

Several months ago, I read a passage that captured how I feel watching birds. The author, whose name I’ve forgotten, said that looking at birds takes away our sadness, puts things in perspective, and returns us to nature.

I intend to keep practicing my new passion until I’m a full-fledged bird watcher. With time and commitment, someday, perhaps, I’ll be able to casually tell others, “Yup, I’m a birder.”