by Dr. Holly Ordway
Creative energy, for me, is like a river. It has been part of my inner landscape for as long as I can remember, its waters first spilling over into stories and art projects when I was old enough to pick up a crayon. Now it flows into written words in a wide range of forms.
Sometimes the river goes underground, taking its freshening waters out of my reach. I’ve learned, though, that when I ‘run dry’, such that I don’t want to write or I feel that I have nothing worth saying, usually it’s because I need to rest, physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. So I wait, and allow the Muse to chide me into giving myself some grace.
Still, I can’t be passive. The river can silt up, grow sluggish, if I don’t make a habit of sitting down at the computer and wrestling with words to get out a paragraph, a page, a few pages – giving myself enough time to write, and not allowing myself to get distracted or frustrated when nothing brilliant appears at first (or at all).
Sometimes the river spreads out into a dozen rivulets, each narrow channel sparkling with potential – yet too shallow to sustain me; I splash about and muddy the waters instead of diving deep or sailing somewhere new. Then it’s time to go upstream, and guide the flow into just one or two channels, deep and strong. It’s easy to get excited about new projects, new books or poems or ideas for my blog – but with my attention spread across so many different things, I can’t sustain work on any one of them for long, and I don’t get anything written. It’s hard to choose what to focus on when any choice means setting aside other interesting projects – but I’ve learned that failing to choose one means choosing none at all.
Choosing the right projects – ah, there’s a challenge. Sometimes what feels like being stuck is really a case of my creative energy not having the right form and channel. For two years I went through various iterations of a proposal for a book; I thought I had the project completely outlined, all set to go, and yet, I wasn’t wholeheartedly enthused about it. At the end of this past summer, I finally scrapped that project and switched to a different one, and immediately I could tell the difference: I was excited about the project, I wanted to work on it, and I did work on it. And it turned out that some of the material I’d written for the halfway-started book fits perfectly in this new one – my Muse had been stealthily diverting some of the dammed-up water in the right direction, before I realized it myself . . .
I often find it helpful to have two different types of projects going on at the same time. My academic work is a different kind of creative work (analytical, synthetic) than my poetry. These two kinds of writing engage me with words in different ways, and so it is a refreshment of spirit to be able to turn from one to the other.
And yet the deep wellspring of creative energy is the same. This past summer, I devoted all my writing time and energy – all of it – to revising my memoir, Not God’s Type. In about two and a half months, I added about twenty-five thousand words to the original manuscript (nearly doubling it in length) and extensively revised all of the existing material as well. It was an incredibly productive, joyful, and satisfying experience, and I think that the result is the very best writing that I’ve ever done; certainly, when I sent in the final manuscript revision to Ignatius Press, I knew “this is as good as it is in my power to make it.”
I realized at the tail end of those months of writing that, unlike the previous year, I had not written a single poem, nor even a single line of poetry, during the entire summer. And I immediately knew why. In this case, all of the river’s water had been directed into one channel. The memoir required a mix of analytical and poetic thinking, both kinds of creativity woven into one project; every drop of my creative energy went into the writing and revising and re-re-revising of the book.
I am content. I have learned something about the nature of this river, this flow of energy that is not of my making; I’ve learned a little bit about how to be a good caretaker of the river, to use and not to squander it, to guide it as well as be guided by it. I’m writing poetry again, even if it’s just a couple of lines on a Sunday afternoon, enough to keep that channel flowing, not allow it to be silted up with disuse. And I am reminding myself, in this end-of-semester, end-of-year time, when days are short and nights are long, and I am more worn out than I realize, that this is a good time to let myself be carried along on other people’s rivers, to allow myself that grace of rest.
Holly is a poet, teacher, and apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. Follow Dr. Ordway’s reflections on the practice of living a holy life at her website at http://www.hieropraxis.com.