Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Curse of Wanting to Be Creative

"You don't have any imagination."

Those words, from my late sister-in-law, with all her characteristic lack of tact, ring in my ears years after the incident. (Or maybe that's my tinnitus.) It wasn't particularly offensive to hear her say that. Nor was it surprising, as pretty much everything she said was offensive in one way or another, especially when it was directed at me. No. I think it's stuck with me because someone else was speaking out loud a truth that I've always struggled with.

Still, true but unhelpful comments are just that -- and are perhaps best left unspoken.

The funny thing is, I feel as if I was pretty creative as a kid. I played pretend, both with my mom and by myself. I'd spin records on my little turntable and pretend I was a disc jockey, making banter between songs. I drew a crudely simple comic strip. I painted my Matchbox cars and made up personalities for them. When I joined the school band, I sprang out of the gate with musical ideas in my head, quickly vaulted to first chair, and even once got to write a short percussion cadence for a marching band routine. Heck, I built whole worlds in my head. 

Somewhere between my teenage years and adulthood, that creative spark somehow got snuffed out, and I've never been able to reignite it. 

In college, I discovered that I had an innate understanding of English grammar, which eventually led to a career as a copy editor. There's no creativity in copy editing. There are rules. And I normally bristle at rules. But people pay me to edit stuff, and that's how I feed my family. Hardly the career of a creative mind. But fitting, since I have no imagination.

And yet... and yet.. I still feel as if that moderately creative kid is somewhere stuck inside me, always trying to come out, but inevitably tripping over the threshold and crawling back in the house, defeated like a hapless Charlie Brown for another day. 

And I know that kid is still in there because I find ordinary, inside-the-box life stultifying. I can't relate to most people and their everyday lives. I don't watch TV. I don't worry and obsess over the things I'm told to worry and obsess over. (I find plenty of my own things to worry and obsess over.) I seek out novelty. I like fairly unconventional music. Aesthetics and beauty are very important things to me. These are typical qualities of an artistic person. 

So why can't I be more creative? 

Sesame Street's eternally frustrated
Don Music. The struggle is real.
I have about a dozen guitars, and I can't push past learning three or four simple chords. I love the sound of them all, but I just don't seem to have the mental capacity to grasp where the notes are on the fretboard, or to place my fingers where they need to be. Granted, most of my guitars are tuned in fifths, which makes far more logical sense to me than the five major fourths and a major third of standard tuning, but even in standard I'd be lost. I know because I've tried. 

Keyboards make more intuitive sense to me, and I can pick out melody lines from a song with moderate ease on a piano -- but ask me to combine my hands to play chords and bass parts, and it's all over. 

Plus, I can read music, but only to the point of counting up to where each note is on the ledger line, noting the key signature, playing that note, and then repeating the entire tedious process for the next note. 

My fiction reads like a Wikipedia article. My writing career has focused on journalism and other practical writing pursuits for that very reason. The poetry of good storytelling eludes me. (And poetry is completely outside my wheelhouse.) I can tell you the who, what, where, when, and why of a situation, but only in a dull, direct, informational way. I can type up the report, but I can't paint the picture.

Maybe this is the curse of having an INTP personality. I get lost in obscure theories and abstractions. I analyze things to the point of often being unable to make a decision. I hate rules and traditions that serve no obvious purpose. I question social norms and hate making small talk. I'm the one who always finds the logical inconsistency in everything. 

So how do you cultivate a creative mind out of that hot mess? 

I love that my wife writes novels and paints as a hobby. I equally love that my kid is obsessed with drawing and wants to play pretend every chance she gets. My wife's friend makes amazing stuff and sells it on Etsy. Another is an ace illustrator. And my wife and kiddo themselves both get creative with clay and other media at an art studio in our town. I wish I had a fraction of their creative ability. Creativity comes naturally to an INFP like my wife, I suppose. It must be nice.

I've disconnected from politics and current events, after realizing that my complaining was having no effect on anyone but me -- and on me, the net effect was negative. With cruddy health and half a dozen other concerns weighing on me, stressing out about the world only served to make me more anxious. I can only control what happens within my own family in my own house -- and even then I don't win every battle, so how could I ever expect to make a difference in the world outside my front door? 

Likewise, I've had this blog for nine years, and I'm lucky to have one or two readers per post, which is disheartening when you've spent a lot of time crafting what you think is a good article, including devoting time to research. Heck, not even my thought-out YouTube comments get any likes, while boneheaded comments all around mine get dozens of likes and replies. Maybe I'm really just that socially awkward, to the point of not even being able to speak the same conversational language as most people. 

I think there's something broken about me, and I think there always has been. Did the trauma of early childhood physical abuse, and later ongoing emotional abuse, mess me up so much that I just can't function like a normal person? And has that contributed to my lack of imagination? I don't get it. My wife and kiddo enjoy playing Dungeons & Dragons, but I stress out when I have to roleplay and improvise. I want to enjoy going into their world of imagination with them, but I don't know how. I'd also love to play an instrument with even a little competence, or write some good fiction, but my brain just doesn't seem to work that way.

I suppose I'm not completely bereft of creativity. I think I have a good sense of aesthetics, like how to organize furniture in a room or pictures on a wall in a way that's pleasing to the eye. I'm good at music mixes, as I think I have a good ear for what kinds of music flow together and complement each other. (I used to make some darn good mixes on my old tape decks and, later, my much-missed MiniDisc console.) If I had the time and patience for it, I could take systems of rules, extract the things I like best from each, and create a whole new thing with a cohesive system of organization. (Think a new sport, a new instrument, or even a new religion.) I'm good with abstractions and what-ifs that way. 

But that also creates real-life frustration, because I can envision something that would be ideal in my head but will probably never come to fruition, and I'm left lamenting that the perfect fill-in-the-blank doesn't exist. Like a six-string guitar that can be tuned in all fifths without having a mushy low string or a high sting that snaps. There's a logic and beauty to fifths tuning, but in the same way that music theory makes perfect sense in my head but doesn't flow out of my fingers, so the six-string guitar I want to play seems to butt heads with simple physics. If Robert Fripp couldn't make all-fifths tuning work, why would I think I can? And yet the ideal in my head lingers and won't go away.

I think I need a music room, where I can take my ever-growing arsenal of instruments and just struggle to make whatever pleasing sounds I'm able to. My best buddy and I did something similar when we were kids, playing with drum machines, crappy little Casio keyboards, old beat-up acoustic guitars, and our own voices and imaginations. We were awful, but we enjoyed ourselves, and we always made our audience-of-us happy. 

Not everybody can be creative in the conventional sense, I suppose. I just crave an outlet. It's hard to get through life without one.

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