Creative Gridlock

The Audacity of Making Things

When did creating become complicated?

When I was seven, my best friend and I began trying to copy famous paintings stroke for stroke— Monet’s waterlilies, Van Gogh’s sunflowers, aerial views of Italian villas. (We were odd seven-year-olds, I know.) It never crossed my mind that what we made wouldn’t be as good as the originals.

We sold out young, at the tender age of eight.

Suspecting our parents had a soft spot for us, we saw an opportunity to monetize. Realizing that shitty, mass-produced artwork was much quicker to manufacture and would probably sell just as well to our target audience, we began furiously tracing our hands on page after page, adding watches and coloring the fingernails in various permutations, never spending too much time on one hand.

We re-purposed a baby doll changing table into an art display, and attached a price tag — 25 cents a hand.

Finding our parents in the kitchen, we announced the show. “We are pleased to invite you to a formal viewing of our work. Bidding will commence at noon, in the artist’s bedroom.”

We pretended we had worked very hard on the hands. They milled about and commented on the pieces, before dropping a couple bucks each on our soulless hand art.

I felt both guilty and proud that we had swindled them.

At age ten my dad gave me a floppy disk, and I began work on my first novel on our family computer: a thinly veiled retelling of Redwall, which I entitled “Constallia”. I wanted it to have more gritty realism than Redwall, an extra dash of PG-13, so in the rodent army’s marching song I rhymed “watch them flee, watch them run” with “their flesh will be eaten on a bun”.

Call me, Pulitzer prize board.

Constallia would be quickly followed by Flash, the story of a boy and the wild horse he would tame — also a thinly veiled retelling, this time of every horse story ever told. I still had no inhibitions.

That year I spent every afternoon at a friend’s house choreographing to the pre-sets on her keyboard, performances we graciously forced upon her extended family. Ribbons and themed props were involved.

In seventh grade I auditioned for show choir. I was one of only two students who were rejected, but due to a scheduling error I was placed in the show choir anyway. The director made it known that she was upset at the school for invalidating her audition process. And even then, I had no shame! My name was one half of a published list of people unqualified for show choir, and I still just assumed I would be incredible.

I traveled to Carnegie Hall that year, one of two descants in a children’s choir commissioned to give the first ever performance of a composer’s latest work. Right during the kyrie, when I was supposed to be begging the Lord for mercy in E minor, facing a hall full of bright lights and blurred faces in what was arguably the peak of my artistic career, I had a violent asthma attack which I projected straight into the front center microphone.

Did this cause me artistic regret? Absolutely not.

In eighth grade, my best friend and I landed the roles we were born for: undercover-detective-agents-posing-as-a-construction-workers-at-a-disco. The roles were written for men. I’m still not sure if they were meant to be comedic, but of course confidence wasn’t lacking, and we marched on stage like Abbott and Costello.

In ninth grade I took a creative writing class, and I was sure each piece would unveil my genius to the world.

One poem I wrote was entitled “What’s Wrong with the World Today?”. It was a sweeping masterpiece of epic poetry, covering everything from infant malnutrition and AIDS to the monstrous neglect my father showed in not coming to my disco musical because he was out of town on business. To give you a taste, the ending took the refraining question and gave an insightful, hard-hitting answer:

What’s wrong with the world today?

There’s so much wrong with the world today.

There’s so much wrong.

(I was in an emo phase at the time, heavy handed eyeliner and black skinny jeans before skinny jeans were mainstream, but that’s neither here nor there.)

When the teacher suggested I consider writing a sequel entitled “What’s Right with the World Today?” I rolled my raccoon eyes. She had no understanding of my artistic vision. I wrote a two-line poem inside my Five Star, just to spite her:

What’s right with the world today?

Nothing.

I carried this artistic vision into a whole new medium in Introduction to Photography. For my first assignment, I caked my best friend’s face in black eye makeup before unceremoniously dumping water over her head so it would run down her face in tragic ribbons. I then positioned her in a dim stairwell and asked her to look as depressed as possible. I nailed the shot.

Photographing our other best friend in an equally depressed squatting position, I noticed an unsettling ceramic bust of a clown in the corner of her grandparents’ dining room. I gasped with artistic discovery. “Hang on, don’t move, let me re-position this clown head.”

“Clown head? What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Nothing, just stare at it. You both are going to stare at each other.”

Genius.

Only my photography teacher, like my pedestrian hack of a writing teacher, didn’t understand my vision. I received an A-minus, which at the time felt like a grave injustice. When I confronted him, he shrugged and said, “It just wasn’t that good.”

Still, the fault wasn’t with me; it landed squarely with the man wearing a black turtleneck and decorative scarf in the middle of the muggy Florida spring-time. His judgment was clearly off.

So I kept creating.

In Introduction to Art, things got political. I painted a poster-sized photo-negative of a child soldier, then pulled a friend out of Statistics class so I could dip her abnormally small hands in blood red paint and stamp them on either side. BAM. Impact. Try to stay in your suburban privilege-induced coma now!

Then, towards the end of this class, we were taught about gridding. In this process, we drew a grid over a photograph and a corresponding grid on our sketch pad, then transferred the image square by square, preserving exact proportions and lines.

This may have been my downfall — the moment creativity got complicated.

What was meant to be a helpful tool, in the hands of a perfectionist, became a pair of handcuffs. What I sketched using gridding seemed so much better than what I sketched without gridding. I became addicted. I stopped creating anything without gridlines.

The problem with gridlines is that, when used like rigid bars, they lock out artistic freedom. My gridline sketch will look identical to yours, if we have a comparative amount of ability. I wasn’t creating anymore, I was just duplicating.

My senior year, I landed a place in the dance ensemble of All Shook Up — an Elvis musical, for the unfamiliar (and likely more popular) among you. I was feeling good about it until we did a test performance for the middle school next door. (But really, who decided middle schoolers made an ideal test audience?)

Like a sweat-inducing stress dream, a clump of them began to laugh and point at me during our opening number, Jailhouse Rock. Laugh and point. Those monsters.

One of them happened to be the little sister of my best friend, so I grilled her afterwards. She said there was a move where everyone else had kept their arms parallel to the floor, and I had been holding my arms at a right angle. I never knew because I was in the front. (Way to have my back, number 47.)

For the first time, I felt ashamed. Control and perfectionism had crept into creative expression. I had lapsed outside the gridlines, and it felt like failure.

I couldn’t paint anymore — I’d start things and scrap them as soon as a line went wrong.

I wrote, but only in private journals or for class papers.

I danced, but only to someone else’s choreography or to someone else’s lead.

I went into full-blown creative shut-down. I would only create using other people’s gridlines, and as a result I ceased to create at all.

Only, humans are inherently creative creatures. We need to create to retain a sense of self, a sense of contentment. It’s not about making something good, it’s about making something.

My creative gridlock took a toll. Over time I became discontent, a bit depressed, uptight, and overall ~crunchy~. Because you can shut down the outlets but you can’t shut down the desire.

I could show you pages of my journal where I prayed for opportunities to tell stories. Praying for opportunities to tell stories! As if I were praying for rain or an end to famine, as if it didn’t depend on me at all. Kyrie eleison.

When funding for our non-profit decreased, and my husband and I were deciding who should stay on staff and who should get a different job, this was the response I felt like I heard from God: “Get a normal job, and tell stories.”

Tell stories. An action verb. As if God did not think telling stories was like ending famine. As if God thought telling stories was just something I should do.

Of course, I couldn’t tell stories without gridlines! So I applied to four graduate-level grids in creative fiction. Only none of the grids wanted me.

I cried silently when I received the last rejection. Not because I was upset at not getting into graduate school, but because I was upset at not being able to do what I loved.

I took a moping walk on my lunch break, until I found a hot cement picnic table at which I could bake in my own artistic demise. I laid my face down, turning it away from the group of seemingly perfectly fulfilled brochure-appropriate go-getters at the table nearby, all chumming it up on top of Maslow’s hierarchy while I languished on the middle rung like a loser.

Ten minutes into moping, I received a clear message from younger me.

The me that sold bad hand prints for a quarter each and forced people to watch her dance to “Superstition” on keyboard.

This is stupid, she told me. Nothing is stopping you from telling stories. Are you kidding me? Nothing is cheaper or more accessible than story-telling. You could do it with a pen and paper. Hell, you could do it with a stick and some dirt. Forget that, you could just open your mouth. Get over yourself. You have everything you need, you’re just scared.

I lifted my head a little, startled at the audacity of inner me to challenge the comfortable moping of outer me.

That weekend, I wrote the first thing in eleven years that would see the public light of day, and I braced myself.

No middle schoolers pointed and laughed at me. Though, if they did, I think that would be alright. Because one month and seventeen articles later, I’m happier and more energy-filled than I’ve been in eleven years.

If you need permission to ditch your grid lines, here it is. Don’t waste eleven years. Don’t try to go make something good. Just go make something.